Culture of the
Robert H. King
Women on Art Symposium
Economics & Nuthatches
Virtue & Vice
When we were two
Party Swings &
William Clark & Robert Doohihan
The scum also
Freedom for Freedom
of Expression Rally
Tales of the Great
Your place or
Peter Suchin, William Clark, Leigh
Hal Foster Interview
(Anti-socialist campaigns and
operations in the British Labour Movement since the war)
Published by Lobster, 214 Westbourne
Avenue, Hull HU5 3JB Price £5 (32 pages)
"The plea in extenuation of guilt
and mitigation of punishment is perpetual. At every step we are met by
arguments which go to excuse, to palliate, to confound right and wrong,
and reduce the just man to the level of the reprobate. The men who plot
to baffle and resist us are, first of all, those who made history what
it has become. They set up the principle that only a foolish Conservative
judges the present time with the ideas of the past; that only a foolish
Liberal judges the past with the ideas of the present."
Lord Acton, Inaugural Lecture On
The Study Of History, Fontana, 1960
The point of view that the modern
Labour party has 'sold out' its socialist beginnings, while being a common
enough accusation, is not the starting point of the Clandestine Caucus.
Its analysis of secret and semi-secret groups and factions within the larger
political party provide an insight which casts serious doubt on the Labour
Party ever having had much of a socialist foundation in the first place:
"The history of Britain's union
and Labour movement is one of continuous conflict between socialist and
anti-socialist wings; and within that conflict the bit of the story that
is usually not told is that describing the relationship between the anti-socialist
section of the Labour movement and British and US capital and their states."
This relationship, which is comprised
of elements which remain largely suppressed in modern history, begins at
the period just after World War 1,
alongside the origins of the British state, particularly in the context
of the state's response to Bolshevism. It is identified in the various
groupings which comprised the early British corporate movement, around
the period of 1918 to 1926. That movement's failure to produce a more integrated
society; a society which could prevail amidst the emergent struggle between
domestic capital and international finance capital, is, it is suggested,
the basis for the initial co-operation between the state and the British
Trades Unions, principally the TUC. The TUC, or more accurately, the political
beliefs of its leaders and their factions, formed something of a 'praetorian
guard' against the left, and were increasingly motivated by fear of a communist
conspiracy. Links - one could easily say partnerships - developed between
the TUC and state agencies, particularly with the Foreign & Colonial
offices. This was extended with the first two Labour governments and 'solidified
enormously' by World War II and the coalition government.
"Into this domestic anti-Communist
climate came the USA's loans - and the people and ideas, the strings attached
to the money."
While early post World War II history
is usually summed up by the catch-all phrase the 'Cold War', what actually
happened in the take over of Europe carries with it complex covert political,
military and economic drives (which still continue), all amidst the general
chaos of a destroyed Europe. This is complex and murky ground. Robin Ramsay,
while avoiding a debate on the origins of the Cold War, focuses on the
origins on the Marshall Plan. He identifies the Council on Foreign Relations1
(CFR) as the main vehicle (albeit somewhat informally) for co-ordinating
the US take over of non-communist European countries via covert means;
the British Empire having lost its imperial strength in the post-war years.
In defining the 'strings attached to the money,' we have the CFR as some
form of overseeing body: working alongside it, engaging in psychological
warfare operations was the Economic Co-operation Agency (ECA) and alongside
them the Office of Policy Co-ordination (OPC).2
"What we think of as the CIA, that
is the covert operation, intervention arm of US multi-national capital--the
post-war bogey man supreme for the left--
began as the enforcement arm of
the Marshall plan, engaged in operations against the left and the trade
unions of Europe, communist or non-communist. The OPC was the US administration's
recognition that the ECA alone couldn't 'get the job done' ".
The 'job' in this case includes
the US post-war penetration of the British Labour Party and Trade unions.
One key point in the text relates to the extent US labour attachés
developed influential contacts with the Labour leadership, particularly
Hugh Gaitskell. Here the distinction between whether the attachés
were CIA agents or not becomes academic, both would report to the same
boss, the State Department. It should also come as no great surprise that
such close associations were formed, the Americans were after all perceived
as allies, but then again so were the communists.
Ramsay shifts slightly at this point
to provide parallel information on the survival of UK 'private sector propaganda
organisations', such as Aims of Industry and the Economic League; noted
here because of their networks' pumping of anti-left, anti-nationalisation
briefings into the British press. These resurrected the propaganda systems
and organisations of the period surrounding the general strike. This section
also serves to introduce the Information Research Department (IRD), a key
organisation in unravelling the State's own covert operations and whose
layers Ramsay has peeled back over the years:
"IRD was a triple layer. On the
surface was its formal cover within the Foreign Office as an information
and research department. Beneath that was IRD's role as a propaganda organisation,
dispensing white (true) and grey (half true) propaganda in briefings to
journalists and politicians. But beneath that was the third layer, the
'black' or psychological warfare (psywar) tier."
He presents convincing evidence
that at about the same time IRD came into existence, the union leaders
themselves willingly nudged closer to the covert world and the right, and
again, through a shared and mounting commitment to anti-communism, instigated
various more or less interlocking projects, such as the avowedly clandestine
AEU's 'club', Common Cause and the Industrial Research and Information
Services (IRIS), the latter being set up in the Headquarters of the National
Union of Seamen.
Among the embarrassments of IRD
"1. The extent to which the British
print and broadcast media of the 1950s and 60s recycled IRD material. When
IRD was formally closed in 1978 it still had 100 British journalists on
its contact list, including correspondents for the Sunday Times, Sunday
Telegraph, the Observer, Sunday Mirror, News of the World, the Daily Mail,
Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, The Times, Financial Times, Soviet Analyst
and the Economist.
2. The revelation that IRD was a
full-blown Political Warfare Executive, with all that implies, despite
the fact that no government--no Cabinet--had ever authorised the creation
of such an organisation.
3. Most sensitive of all, IRD used
'black propaganda' in 'political warfare'.
Ramsay's tentative and careful analysis
of the IRD, has been confirmed and extended by fairly recent (official)
revelations. The same could be said of his interpretation of the revelations
of Colin Wallace: an ongoing assessment going back some ten years. Wallace
worked at 'Information Policy', long maintained to have been an Northern
Ireland based Army press office in the 70s, but identified here as the
last sighting of IRD in its 'black' role:
"Information Policy was constructed
in the same way as IRD, concealing the psy-war role behind the cover role
of a propaganda unit, which in turn, was concealed by the formal information
role ...Disinformation was planted in the media; foreign journalists were
taken into back rooms and shown 'secret' documents - diaries, leaflets,
minutes of meetings; some genuine, many forged. IRD tried, yet again, to
establish the insurgents as part of the Soviet global conspiracy, but after
the re-election of the Wilson government in 1974 they also began to try
to show support for the IRA from a Labour Party influenced by the CPGB."
Information on IRD's operations
in the mainland is not only scarce but (naturally) riddled with disinformation
and evasion. To penetrate the fog has required tenacious research and evaluation.
Ramsay makes the important observation that his initial research looked
for MI5 operations, he now accentuates three British Intelligence agencies:
"There was a group of MI5 officers,
led by Peter Wright, who were plotting against the Wilson government and,
for example, trying to use the Information Policy unit in Northern Ireland
to spread disinformation about Wilson and other British politicians whom
MI5 regarded as 'unsound'; there was also a group of ex-SIS and former
military officers, led by former SIS number two, the late George Kennedy
Young, operating as the Unison Committee for Action; and there was the
Crozier-IRD subversion-watcher network."
The main 'influence' on the work
seems to be Richard Fletcher's work.3
This is most evident in his focus on the rise of the Social Democratic
movements, which again show the insidious nature of the right-wing of the
Labour Party. The movement centring around Gaitskell and the CIA funded
Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), was massively overburdened with individuals
and organisations with connections to the secret state and its operations;
too many people taking the money and not asking too many questions. While
aspects of the CCF were exposed in the 60s, Ramsay would seem, by putting
the emphasis on Brian Crozier, to indicate how its operations (in more
than just the capacity of a 'news agency') survived, developed and continued.
A picture emerges of interlocking organisations--'private sector' intelligence
operations. The preceding accounts of 'anti-communism' among the union
bosses connects with 'anti-communism' amongst agents of the secret state
through several organisations such as the IRIS. Crozier's publication "British
Briefing" (re-running IRD material on subversion and funded by the Industrial
trust) was published by the IRIS, thus:
"What began a quarter of a century
before as an anti-Communist caucus among the AUEW's senior officers, had
ended up fronting for Britain's leading anti-socialist psychological warfare
expert ...Three anti-socialist, senior trade union leaders, fronted the
clandestine production of an anti-socialist bulletin, written and edited
by former intelligence officers, financed by British capital. This anti-socialist
mechanism also involved the connivance of the Charity Commission which
allowed the Industrial Trust to operate in a breach of the charity laws."
It is here Ramsay takes an overview
of the period, noting that if we can still partially see the remnants of
these operations in 1989, we must question how large the whole operation
was in the mid-70s; we must re-question its nature and the role of what
are perceived to be solely propaganda operations, such as Aims of Industry.
Furthermore he calls for a clear-sighted approach by the Labour left towards
the commonplace mechanism of British Capitalism to fund its opponents with
a view towards subversion. What all this comes down to is that whatever
evidence to the contrary, a significant part of the British right;
"...in the propaganda organisations
of capital, the state and the Conservative party, believed that the CPGB
was part of a global conspiracy, directed and financed by Moscow, which
was working in the union movement and wider society to undermine capitalist
democracy in Britain. And it is no longer self-evident that this was complete
The latter part of that statement
relates to fairly recent discoveries in Lobster and elsewhere concerning
the "Moscow gold" issue and in tandem with this the issue of "secret" communist
Party members in high places. Hitherto regarded as fictitious, it transpires
that the CPGB was to a limited extent funded by the Soviet Union: as a
form of compensation, after a large drop in membership as a result of Soviet
foreign policy. The money came in the form of used notes which were amateurly
laundered into party funds. While the mainstream media touched on this
as a tidbit from a bygone era, Ramsay has - using the similar example of
the American Communist Party's relationship to the FBI - discovered something
"In the 1970s, the anti-subversion
lobby, orbiting around IRD, and presumably informally briefed on the reality
of the 'Moscow gold' by MI5, took the picture of real--and arguably, increasing--CPGB
influence on the trade unions, and added KGB/Soviet control. To this theory
the Communist Party contributed by occasionally boasting of its influence
on the Labour Party; with the Labour Party itself unwittingly adding the
final touch by abolishing in 1973 the Proscription List of organisations
- mostly 1950s Soviet fronts - that Labour Party members could join, thus
convincing the paranoids on the right that the mice were in the pantry.
Unaware of the 'Moscow gold' evidence, the left dismissed the right's Soviet
angle as manifestly nonsense."
He makes the key observation that
MI5 had been aware of the 'Moscow gold' almost as soon as it began, and
further knew who the intermediary was: Reuban Falber. One of the interesting
passages in SMEAR! (The book written by Ramsay and Stephen Dorril) drives
a coach and horses through Peter Wright's account in Spycatcher, of an
MI5 break-in to a house where CPGB files were kept, he picks this up again
"Wright tells us that MI5 planned
to burgle Falber's flat but their plan failed - and leaves it there! To
MI5 the proof of the Moscow gold must have had something of the status
of the Holy Grail; and we are to believe that having located it they made
only one attempt to get it? Wright really wants us to believe that for
20 years, aware that the CPGB were getting actual cash money, MI5 were
either unable to detect the pay-offs in London, or, having made one failed
attempt, just gave up? This is simply not credible."
His main point is that had the existence
of Soviet funding been revealed in the late 50s, the CPGB would have been
perhaps irreparably damaged. For MI5 this 'secret' link to the Soviet Union
became an increasingly useful weapon to use against the left in the UK,
particularly the Labour party. These are his concluding remarks:
"Since so much of the British Left
came either from, or in opposition to, the CPGB, it is impossible to even
speculate convincingly how the British Left - or British politics - would
have developed if the 'Moscow gold' had been exposed in the late fifties.
But it certainly is possible that the anti-union hysteria of the late 1970s,
leading to the catastrophe of Thatcherism - and the subsequent collapse
of the Labour Party into its current vacuity - could have been avoided."
1 The CFR is totally ignored in
most official and semi-official versions of events; John Ranelagh's long
work on the CIA, The Agency, Sceptre, 87, completely fails to mention it
in this and any other context. He has the OPC as the work of Dean Acheson
(p116), then as Kennan's proposal, "...after George Marshall and Dean Acheson
had both backed it." (p113); then the case for covert action is stated
to have been made by Dulles "...and some other influential men outside
the administration"(p134). Christopher Simpson in Blowback, talks of members
of Kennen's Policy Planning Staff (PPS): "...Officially a somewhat egg-headed
institution." Dedicated to planning US strategy for 10 to 20 years in the
future. Victor Marchetti and John D. Marks' The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence,
gives something of a revealing account of the relationship with the CFR
in their reproduction of the 'Bissell Meeting' from 1968. This is a talk
to The CFR by a top CIA executive and reads like a shareholders meeting.
2 The CIA themselves were bitterly
fought against by these and other Intelligence agencies in the US, particularly
3 Fred Hirsch & Richard Fletcher,
The CIA & The Labour Movement, Spokesman Books, 1977. Another influence
is Phil Kelly's essay in The Leveller (a now defunct radical magazine),
which aimed to detail links between the CIA and the Social Democrats, although
Ramsay is critical of its claims.
back to top
Paper jam: call
The Culture of the Copy:
Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable
Zone Books, New York, 1996, 565
Hillel Schwartz must be impossible
to live with. In The Culture of the Copy, he manages to crowd over five
hundred pages with enough facts to found a new planet. The sheer energy
of the text is exhausting, the number of examples and anecdotes cumulatively
The book opens with a chapter on
the Real McCoy and Schwartz treats us to a thumbnail biography of one Elijah
"...born 1843 into a community of
African-Americans who had escaped from slavery in the South. Taking ship
to Scotland, McCoy apprenticed to a mechanical engineer. Upon his return
across the Atlantic, the job he found with the Michigan Central Railroad
was a fireman, stoking the engine, but between 1872 and 1900 he was awarded
patents on automatic engine-lubricating devices of such reliability that
they were known to the industry as "The Real McCoy". He became a patent
consultant to the railroads and moved to the Detroit area, where after
a long life he died alone in an infirmary in 1929."
This seems totally convincing until
Schwartz introduces his next contender for the title--Bill McCoy, who is
quickly followed by Kid McCoy aka Charles McCoy aka Norman Selby. The Kid,
married ten times (four times to the same woman), was successively a boxer,
an actor, a bankrupt, a diamond dealer, a superintendent of the National
Detective Agency, a car salesman, a racing driver, a boxer, a bankrupt,
a smuggler, a car salesman, a soldier, a film maker, a three-time jealous
murderer, a model prisoner (pardoned) and a suicide.
So much for the preface. This vertigo-inducing
prose never lets up and the characters Schwartz describes in passing only
get stranger. As the book progresses, however, it becomes clear just how
important the author's style is to the subject matter. The very idea of
a copy, replica or duplicate seems to spark deep anxieties in our society
while, at the same time, we breed reproductions on a dizzying scale. Schwartz
points to the inherent paradox of our culture in which: "The more adept
the West has become at the making of copies, the more we have exalted uniqueness.
It is within an exuberant world of copies that we arrive at our experience
of originality." The amphetamine rush of his text parallels this "exuberant
world of copies" and simulates the mental upheaval we experience when confronted
with an exact copy of an 'essentially' unique object.
One of the great shocks of the book
is the extent to which the copy and the technology of copying has permeated
our culture. Schwartz touches on the obvious landmarks, such as identical
twins, photocopiers, mass productions, forgeries, photography, plagiarism,
virtual reality, recording, self-portraits, doppelgängers, decoys,
models and carbon copies. Beyond this, however, he multiplies the everyday
acts of copying we perform--memorising faces, events or telephone numbers,
pressing the save key on a computer keyboard, wearing spectacles to standardise
The ubiquity of the copy is humbling
and in danger of disheartening the reader. To counteract this possibility,
Schwartz peppers the text with a series of beautifully researched biographies
of the key players in the culture of the copy. Whether it is the skewed
imagination of the book's author or sheer luck, many of these characters
led lives Fellini must have scripted.
Take Chester Carlson, for example,
a bumbling lab worker, crippled by spinal arthritis. One of his early diary
entries reads "Pa gone crazy 1924-26". Later in life he contemplated writing
an American Dictionary of Quacks and Fakes and eventually he invented the
Xerox out of his frustration with the need to copy specifications for patents
of his other inventions.
Other, better known, characters
also appear in Schwartz's story but in new, unexpected guises. L. Frank
Baum, writer of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, surfaces in a chapter on shop
dummies where he is revealed as editor of The Show Window and author of
The Art Of Decorating Dry Goods Windows. Schwartz then interprets the Emerald
city as a large show window, creating a sudden and plausible source for
the Tin Man and the Scarecrow as fantastic mannequins. Deeper in the text
we come across Martin Luther King Jr. carefully 'integrating' passages
verbatim from the theologian Paul Tillich into his thesis after his academic
adviser explains that "all modern theology which is competent is essentially
These biographical snapshots are
deliberately quirky, emphasising the finicky, irreproducible eccentricities
of a multitude of individuals. Each bizarre detail of their lives is quietly
celebrated by Schwartz as another example of a world untouched by the copy.
In his use of biography he is consciously arguing for the value of the
individual voice and the positive rewards of tolerating difference. Coming
to the heart of his argument he states that:
"Telling true spirit from false
has never been simple. Our culture of the copy further discourages discernment,
unless it be a kind of doubling back. The more we attempt to tell things
apart, the more we end up defending our skills at replication. The more
intrepid our assertions of individual presence, the more makeshift seem
our identities, the less retrievable our origins. There may come a point
of no return."
To illustrate just how makeshift
our identities can be, Schwartz cites Kid McCoy's accidental meeting with
Charlie Chaplin in a courthouse. While McCoy was there on a count of murder,
Chaplin was suing an impersonator who had imitated his character and costume.
While Chaplin could defend the creation of his costume, the creation of
his character was a different matter and he testified that "I'm unconscious
while I'm acting. I live the role and I am not myself."
The difficulty in pinning down any
'essential' personality runs as an undercurrent throughout the book. In
a fascinating discussion of artists using photocopies to produce work,
Schwartz describes male artists approaching the machine as an instrument
of salvation only to confront existential crises, as in George Mühleck's
black works Copy of the Moon and Copy of the Stars - made by leaving the
copier glass open to the night skies. In contrast, he points to women artists'
use of the copier to celebrate multiple identities or to question imposed
identity as in the work of Pati Hill who praises the copier because: "It
is the side of your subject that you do not see that is reproduced..."
Schwartz obviously takes Hill's
comments to heart in the construction of his own book. After 382 non-stop,
fact-filled pages the main text finally rolls to a halt. Flip the page
and you are then faced with 'The Parallel Universe'--a further 150 pages
of endnotes, a glittering display of reference and arcane comment that
provides almost as much enjoyment as the earlier prose.
Philosophically, the endnotes also
question the originality and 'essence' of the main text, acting as a critique
of Western Scholarship while encouraging the reader to delve further into
a plethora of detail beyond the book's own framework.
In the end, perhaps, the book itself
serves the reader best as a reference tool. Taken as a series of micro-essays
on a wide array of subjects each meditation can stimulate a whole field
of work. Taken as a whole, in one sitting, the reader's head may explode.
back to top
Andrew Stones, Street Level Photoworks,
Glasgow, 6 May - 7 June 1997
On entering Street Level, conscious
of hope in the air following the general election, it was remarkable to
see 'Bothered (Black Rod)', which made direct reference to the symbolic
opening of parliament.
I was confronted by an array of
black and white video monitors, the type used to display images from surveillance
cameras, positioned above head height. The screens peer down at the viewer
from both sides of the gallery, like an audience. On each is displayed
an identical image of the Queen's face, only her eyes and forehead showing.
The Monarch looks out through her glasses, as when reading the customary
speech at the beginning of each session of parliament.
Like a gunshot, the silence is punctuated
by the hollow ring of Black Rod on the doors of parliament. At precisely
this moment, the multiple images of the Queen's face look slightly askance,
a sidewards glance giving expression to the unease that this sound generates
in the head of State.
Multiple readings of this work are
possible: however I prefer to deal with the artist's inferred critique
of the institution of governmental power. The martial spectacle of the
opening of parliament, with the MP's advancing side by side in ranks like
a military brigade, is evoked by even such minimal fragments. Concentrating
on this ritual, the piece reminds the viewer of the symbolic nature of
the handover of power in Parliament. The opening of the House of Commons
itself symbolises the hierarchy that places limits on the power of the
Commons. Black Rod, the usher of the ancient Order of the Garter, represents
the Lords or nobility and the Crown, and by implication the military through
the Knighthood. His presence is a reminder of the struggle in the executive
between the Commons and the State. Given the loaded significance of the
imagery, Stones manages to be subtle. Possibly he is attempting to express
the ambiguous relationship between the three elements of the medieval institution
of Parliament: Crown, Lords and Commons.
The position of the viewer in relation
to the piece is also open to question: images of the Queen are reproduced
through the mechanisms of surveillance, but the Monarch stares unblinkingly
back, distracted only by Black Rod. The method of replication - black and
white television - refers to the first mass television spectacle, the Coronation
44 years ago. Back then, the live broadcast was said to herald the arrival
of the new Elizabethan age, echoing the beginnings of English imperialism
and conquest at a time when the empire was collapsing. The authority of
the Crown extended and reinforced its dominion through myriad television
receivers in its subjects' living rooms. The use of a recorded video image,
looped through a closed circuit, seems to mimic the changed relationship
between Crown and parliament since that time: the supposed democratic power
of the people still in thrall to the spectacle of monarchy, yet critically
monitoring, watching for any slip in the mask.
Situated in the second gallery space,
'The Nature of Their Joy' seems to share an approach with the first work:
that of scrutiny of a face, trying to unlock the emotional significance
of an ambiguous expression. At either end of the gallery are two large-scale
transparencies, mounted on light boxes, the images follow a concave curved
plane, like the surface of a lens. Superimposed titles inform the viewer
that these are images of crowds celebrating in London at the outbreak,
and cessation of the first world war respectively. The photographs have
been manipulated, the artist framing certain faces from the crowd, picking
them out from the mass in the picture field.
I found myself going back and forth
between the two, trying to discern any differences in the expressions on
people's faces. A fruitless task: there are differences between individual
faces, but these are diluted by the crowd, and by the granular distortions
of the enlarged images. The artist is exploring the difficulty of interpreting
media, in this case the photographic document.
To the right, on plinths ranged
along the gallery space, is a series of cases housing portable microfiche
readers. They are connected by a loop of transparent plastic tubing, which
passes through the projection beams intended to illuminate microfilm. Clear
fluid from a large bell jar in the centre of this strange apparatus is
pumped around the loop. On closer inspection, the jar is seen to contain
tiny negatives. Carried by the current, faces are seen fleetingly, magnified
on the small screens. They trace paths across the screens in turn, like
figures passing a window, never quite making a clear, still image.
A label on the jar announces 'images
in solution'. As the pieces of film are washed, rub against each other
and the pipes, they literally begin to disintegrate. Symbolically linking
the two polar opposites, war and peace: with an arcane, obsolete apparatus
allowing the viewer to inspect and magnify image fragments. The use of
mechanisms that simulate scientific processes of observation, analysis
and evaluation posit the masses as data. The behaviour of crowds, and of
society, the process of history itself as a fluid dynamic, particles in
The soundtrack that accompanies
this installation was constructed from two recorded loops, rainwater on
a roof and a football crowd. Both are slowed down, mixed together to form
a wave like roar. A melancholic ambience fills the space, articulating
a sense of loss, of inevitable change and decay. The artist has described
this piece as an attempt to express society's loss of control to the machine.
The mechanised slaughter of the war replaced humans and horses, allowing
the fighting to continue much longer, beyond human limits. He points to
the use of redundant technologies such as the 'Commuter II' microfiche
readers, replaced by laptop computers almost as soon as they were manufactured,
as evidence that this process continues to accelerate. Images, people,
societies, are transformed into just so much information.
Despite their apparent simplicity,
these are complex, multi-layered works. They act like catalysts for thought
- the viewer making links between the images, sounds, materials, and apparatus.
As such it would be easy to criticise the artist for leaving meaning too
'open to interpretation', but Stones has focused on a narrow range of imagery,
successfully directing the viewer gently towards certain conclusions. Stones
is questioning the authority and veracity of the media and image making
itself, the impossibility of a fixed meaning in art or science.
It is genuinely refreshing to see
an artist working through political issues, yet not succumbing to glib
posturing, or single issue tub thumping. It has been some time since I
have experienced works by an artist this rigorous in intellect, and conveying
a powerful yet subtle political critique.
back to top
Gimmie two sounds
and I'll make you a universe
Robert H. King takes a stroll through
the new electronic soundscape
Live, experimental music has not
had much of a presence in Scotland and given the number of people involved
in one way or another (musicians, DJ's, record labels, magazines, fanzines...)
it is an area that needs promoting. Stirling Arts has realised that locally,
and within Scotland, there are many people (of all ages) involved in technology
driven music. Working from this grass roots base, and as part of their
arts development plans for Stirling, they have embarked on an ambitious
concert programme that aims to bring together local and international musicians
and champion a new approach to music development in an area often considered
difficult and elite. They hope to work closely with other like-minded organisations
such as the London Musicians Collective, in bringing many artists to this
country for the first time. This is something which paid off recently with
two sell-out performances from Death Ambient (USA/Japan) and Ground Zero
featuring Otomo Yoshihide (Japan).
Over the past few weeks the more
discerning music magazines have carried articles on the 'invisible soundtrack'
or what might be described as the art of composing sound for the 'inner
cinema'. This is nothing (entirely) new, musicians have been working in
this area for a great number of years but with the more recent developments
in portable digital recording technology, and indeed with the miniaturisation
of the everyday walkman, the potentials of recording the environment and
incorporating this within studio-based work to have it played back in the
soundscape are only now starting to make a notable impression. Reading
through the press releases and sleeve-notes of the majority of the CD's
that arrived for review revealed a wealth of sound sources other than the
lists of conventional instruments. The works reviewed here are pushing
the envelope of established idioms and act as pointers to new possibilities
"Relief from the racket of everyday
life" proclaims a flyer accompanying an impressive batch of CD's from Nottingham
based Em:t. Housed in luxurious nature photography Digi-paks, these recordings
have been spatially expanded: a 3-D sound imaging system which when listened
to with headphones (or on your walkman) give you a sense of being placed
inside the recordings. The seamless compilation Em:t 1197 is an excellent
introduction to the sonic world of this innovative label, opening with
a spiralling Laurie Anderson-esque piece of pop narrative groove from Richard
Bone that flows into inner gamelan atmospherics courtesy of Woob, pulsing
electro loops and onboard jazz tactics from International Peoples Gang
and 'Waterpump' by Dallas Simpson: a field recording of Simpson walking
through the undergrowth and over stones to an outdoor waterpump which throughout
its 12 minutes does have you feeling that you are there, involuntary scratching
at the sounds of insects and constantly removing the headphones convinced
that there really is running water in the house. This set of 9 aural snapshots
has been curated with an attention to detail that is sadly lacking in a
great many similar ventures. Essential.
Also from Em:t is the debut album
by Slim, 0097 (there are no titles for these releases, just name and catalogue
number) a smooth, seductive collection of polished urban exotica that blends
drum 'n' bass, slow funk, hazy ambient textures and lush keyboards with
hauntingly evocative female vocals. Another aspect of this album that sets
it apart is the careful use of incidental sounds and voices that float
teasingly in the background, again taking us back to the cinematic angle
hinted at by many musicians. Instant and irresistible.
Last years Freeform album Elastic
Speakers was criminally overlooked by the supposed 'forward thinking' alternative
music press, but despite this Simon Pyke has returned with a continuous
stream bombardment of hyper velocity textures and impressions in the shape
of 'Heterarchy' (Worm Interface SE01CD). Pykes skill lies in his ability
to hijack sounds from the real world (the sound of bottles vibrating together
on 'Late Surface' for example) and mutating them in ways that push the
technology to new possibilities. Heterarchy creates a personal inner space
with slabs of noise expanding and contracting with each digital minute
ushering the listener into something vast and at times claustrophobic,
whilst probing microscopic rhythms get under the skin and implode at uneasy
intervals. Freeform are taking a fresh route in the path of experimental
electronics and as this does not embrace current trends and fads he has
a difficult journey ahead of him, but this lack of engagement with any
'scene' is precisely what places Heterarchy in a class of its own. Challenging
The work of Benge is on similar
ground to Freeform in that he is producing material that refuses to be
labelled, although he does go part of the way in helping by titling his
album 'Beautiful Electronic Music' (Expanding Records- expandcd 296) and
EP 'Polyrythmic Electronica' (expandcd 397). Listening to these I am reminded
of an old Japanese custom (no longer practised as far as I am aware) in
which prior to an outdoor gathering, the host would place chirping insects
and small birds in bamboo cages which in turn were hidden amongst the gardens
display so as to relax the guests with their lilting sounds. Benge takes
you on a stroll through his electronic garden and invites you to listen
out for the gently spiralling pulses and tones to be found amidst the floating
textural soundwalls and rapidly shifting cross fades of loops, pulses and
heartbeat rhythms. Each track (identified only by its time) is a different
caged sound that continues to evolve with each passing, catching the possibility
of something if it was left to escape. Repeated listenings outdoors on
a walkman revealed new insects previously unheard but most welcome. Engaging
and one to watch out for.
Brume vs Aphasia (Atmoject, AtmoCD1)
can only be compared to what it must be like having an eardrum removed
with no anaesthetic whilst someone whispers words of comfort in the other.
Harsh, intense waves of electronics flow into moments of almost sheer silence
and calm. Digital surgery being performed on naturally occurring resonating
chambers soon make way for the post operative relaxation sounds of fire,
wood, stones and melting snow. "Use volume with caution" advise the sleeve-notes,
too late, my ears may never be the same again.
Sheffield based Discus have been
quietly producing a steady flow of non linear improvised, experimental
recordings for a number of years now but the release of Martin Archer's
'Ghost Lily Cascade (Discus 4CD) should see them making in-roads to a wider
audience. Archer has taken the structure of solo synthesiser pieces and
distributed these to nine other musicians to create instrumental lines
'in their own time, in their own locations' then re-assembling them in
a series of 'chance' encounters with his computer. What has emerged is
a rich, complex, yet at times simplistic miasma of timbrel soundscapes.
Sustained echoing chords and computer based drone reveries interweave perfectly
with the dark, subtle improvisations of the source recordings. Archer has
managed to produce a unique blend of control and spontaneity that remarkably
manages to stear clear of studio constraints.
Bruce Gilbert (of the seminal, Wire)
has taken the concept of the spoken word album to another level with 'The
Haring- (WMO5CDL). Exquisitely packaged in a luxurious box with Polaroid
inserts this is an intriguing collage of Gilbert's own readings, recordings
of market stalls, unidentifiable noise, stream of consciousness dictation
into a hand held recorder and voice manipulations. What Gilbert has achieved
here is a confusing but compelling 'sound diary' that can only be likened
to picking up tantalising snippets of conversations as you pass through
a crowd, honing in on one only to be led of with another. Gilberts voice
is relaxed and indeed he has mastered the art of lulling the listener into
a false sense of security before rushing in with shards of electronic noise.
Baffling but compelling.
WMO is a label that has been set
up to make available the archive recordings from the various members of
Wire. To date they have issued a stream of early recordings, previously
unheard slices of pure experimentation and embarked on a series of 'various
artists play Wire' CD's, the first being 'Whore' (WMO4CD) featuring Lush,
Main Scanner and 18 others which demonstrates the impact and influence
the band have had for almost two decades.
'Brawling in an art hangout' (Lime
Green Yellow Recording Company- LGY005) by Pan Techno Icon is a quirky
blend of abstract pop electronica and techno minimalism that has been influenced
by the transatlantic ideas of American and European music exchanges. 'Brawling...'
has discernible traces of the US club scene but what is more prevalent
perhaps is the influence of mid eighties electro-pop experimentation from
the likes of The Normal, Fad Gadget, The The and even Blancmange. This
is no slight, for that period produced some ground breaking work that paved
the way for a great many artists today. A refreshing mix of contemporary
beats and hazy nostalgia. Also from Lime Green is 'Experimental clothing
stories' by Ch.... Inspired by cartoons and animated violence this is the
berserker animators machinations of break beats skipping along the malevolent
yellow brick lane whilst loony tune drum 'n' bass and inwardly spiralling
dark ambient textures force their way into moments of surreal quiet all
fuelled by low level bass frequencies and brain pounding beats. Bedtime
stories for the deranged.
Always to the rescue of your inner
calm are Tuu whose latest offering 'Mesh' (Fathom- 11078-2) is 52 minutes
of drifting cavernous spatiality. The layers of ancient bells, bowls, flute,
clay pots and water drums flow along on a tide of harmonium and synthesisers
creating a soothing shamanistic tranquility. Tuu have shaken of the 'ethno-ambient'
label that had been placed on them and moved into a new space entirely
their own, one where the ever present repetitious water drum pulses are
interspersed with the faint chimes of Tibetan singing bowls and the breathy
insistance of the ney flute, perfectly interweave to create sensations
of light, space, colour and harmony. They are absorbed in the idea of creating
the perfect inner sanctuary where drones and resonant loops suspend time
just long enough for the listener to restore their mind to some semblance
of order in a chaotic world. This is their most accomplished work to date
and worthy of everyones attention.
Atmoject Aldersyde, Station Rd,
Banchory, Kincardineshire AB31 5XX.
Discus P.O. Box 658, Sheffield S10
Em:t Square Centre, Alfred St North,
Nottingham NG3 1AA.
Expanding Records P.O. Box 130,
Loghton, Essex IG10 1AY.
Lime Green Yellow Recording Company
P.O. Box 2023, Glastonbury, Somerset
Tuu Archive, P.O.Box 1035, Windsor,
Berks SL4 3YP.
WMO P.O. Box 54, Hitchin, Herts
Worm Interface 4 Berwick St, London
Title appropriation courtesy of
back to top
Saatchi Gallery, London April
The security guard in the gallery
leans awkwardly against a wall. His eyes are not vigilant but distant,
reflecting, perhaps, on the miserable existence which has led to his present
state of being. Not far away, an American couple, kitted out in the garish
colours of their Summer clothes gaze upwards to an exhibit, their faces
belying no emotion other than boredom. To this extent they are like many
tourists, force feeding themselves with culture for which they have no
genuine interest but which they will enjoy talking about in retrospect
in the comfort of their own home while passing the photos around. It's
Sunday: it must be the Saatchi Gallery.
If you follow the tourists' line
of vision, you will notice that there is no exhibit in front of them. They,
like the Security guard, and 15 other life-size characters are the exhibits:
sculptures made from varying combinations of polychromed bronze, polyvinyl,
fibreglass and everyday accessories. Duane Hanson's ordinary Americans
are frighteningly realistic replications of people whose complacency with
their own meaninglessness has bypassed angst to arrive at a condition of
accepted pre-mortal purgatory.
The resemblance to real people is
so acute that one feels uncomfortable looking at them closely, as though
one is invading their personal space. Unlike most works of art which, when
put in a gallery, are emphasised as being just that, Hanson's figures blend
unobtrusively with the often unanimated visitors. The tourists, the guard
and the cleaner fit into the environment very easily but even the sunbather,
with her subtly reddening tan, is such a presence that it is easy to exclude
the gallery environment from the overall effect. Most of the visitors -
cultured types of course - ignored the stare of the flea-market vendor
and peruse, from a do-not-touch distance, with fidgeting hands, the books
on her table. This is quite different from the hyper-real parade of stars
at Madame Tussauds. Static sculptures cannot be animated, so Hanson has
overcome this obstacle to his pursuit of Realism by depicting people who
have become, through the weariness of life, unanimated. For this reason,
the baby in the stroller, too young to have lost her soul, is the least
effective of the pieces.
Hanson's attention to detail was
enabled by making full body casts of his subjects and extends to the tiny
lined squares on the skin which we only notice on ourselves if we peer
closely and, apparently, to the genitalia, although the most intimate glance
I got was of Rita the waitress's breast and bra cup exposed by an undone
button on her overalls.
Apart from admiring Hanson's extraordinary
'craftsmanship', we must question our intentions in visiting this exhibition
and the unquestionable satisfaction in doing so. These ordinary people
are not unlike the ordinary people we have sat with on the tube and walked
past on the street in order to come to the gallery and pay £3.50
to see more of the same. And, for the financially insane, a £15 catalogue
to see photographs of models of people. One reason, after overcoming the
initial embarrassment of offending an inanimate object, is that we can
confront them at point-blank range and scrutinise them with the intensity
of a philatelist as we have probably never done to a living (or dead) human
It is not the age-stretched elbow
skin or the jogger's veined and freckled balding head which declare the
humanity of the sculptures, but the forlorn expressions of people consumed
by their mundane jobs and routines. Even the young shopper, laden with
bags of new clothes, looks quite unmoved by her day out. The old couple
on the bench sit quite apart, looking as though they left each other years
ago. The jogger, who is keen on keeping his health and the only exhibit
which is not overweight, is going bald, needs glasses, is about to become
sunburnt and has had his run curtailed by a blister.
These are unheroic mortals who have
been made immortal by being frozen in a moment of time, yet their expressions
are unafraid, ready for death whenever it may arrive. If the sculptures
were aware of their entrapment in this permanent moment one feels they
would not care.
back to top
12.30, May 2, on a visit to Material
Culture at the Hayward Gallery I was greeted by a considerable police presence
at the door of the exhibition. Insults and expletives were being exchanged
on this sweltering day. A bomb scare? No, just some disgruntled Marxist
students from Middx. University who on expecting to find in Material Culture,
at last, an exhibition with a dialectical twist, discovered instead a show
about sculpture. Their noisy impromptu protest was short lived. I paid
my £5 and went in.
Material Culture promised a survey
of British object-based work spanning 1980-97, a period that seemed to
have a special significance given the fall from office of the Conservative
party the night before. The security guards appeared menacing: nervous
and unsmiling, bulges under their left armpits, they watched through the
narrow slits of half closed eyes. The most alarming feature of Material
Culture was not the impression of increased security but an intense feeling
of deja vu; an effect created firstly by the familiarity of the art works
on display and secondly by the customary pluralism of exhibitions payrolled
by the big cheeses of the London art world. Special agents Greg Hilty and
Michael Archer, the curators of Material Culture, attempted to iron out
the contradictions and approaches.
The resources of the South Bank
were put at the service of the two masters of mis-information. Their numerous
acts of propaganda included an affordable catalogue which contained a user's
guide explaining the themes of the exhibition. Small, square in shape and
containing 45 black and white photographs of artworks from each participating
artist, this catalogue was widely sought and read. Not everything went
according to plan though. Hilty's and Archer's hidden agenda contained
within (the reading of recent artworks through an 80s agenda in support
of flagging quasi-formalist sculptural tradition of 'questioning what an
object is') was beginning to implode. Material Culture received criticism
from all manner of publications.
The curators suggested that the
exhibition was staged as a conversation between works. An example of one
such imagined conversation was described as follows:
"Wilding's Echo and Turk's Pimp,
while not necessarily shown side by side, demand to be compared here. Both
are sculptures of highly polished metal, occupying similar floorspace and
volume; both cold and highly sensual, they combine transparency and containment,
in an emotional and not merely formal sense; both have been made with the
help of industrial manufacturers, and both are among the respective artists'
Hilty's and Archer's conspiracy was
beginning to come apart at the seams. The comparison between Wilding and
Turk was a desperate choice as Turk is part of a recent initiative among
artists to address questions of identity and, in Turk's own specific project,
to address the legacy of the readymade and past critiques of the culture
industry; while Wilding makes sculptures exploring interior and exterior
space. Echo, constructed from slotted metal strips, is a sculpture concerned
with volume, mass and infinity. By comparison, Turk named a large, black
roadside skip Pimp, a reference perhaps to the expensive cars with smoke
black windows that cruise the streets of London? While Turk's use of this
stereotype is alarming, it does place him firmly in a discourse that is
a million miles away from Wilding and her fellow travellers (Marcus Taylor;
perspex fridges, Rachel Whiteread; negative sculptures of domesticity,
Richard Deacon; formalist garden sculpture, Kapoor; mystical phenomenology).
This negative-formalist faction has close ties to the Revolutionary Army
of Structuralist Formalism (RASF) whose commander in chief, Richard Wentworth,
had a high profile in Material Culture. The RASF were strongly represented
by Abigail Lane, Damian Hirst, Ceal Floyer, Julian Opie and Simon Patterson.
Sitting uneasily along side these artist's work were contributions from
Susan Hiller, Lucia Nogueria, Sarah Lucas and Rebecca Warren, but any conversation
between the artworks in the exhibition was governed by post-modernist protocol.
By placing the various artworks in seemingly random relationships, any
shared or contradictory contexts, attitudes and influences were carefully
erased: the discourses that have evolved around artists' works over the
last two decades were effectively silenced.
Despite the smell of panic in the
air the Hayward did feature significant and engaging works. Bill Woodrow's
early disfigured consumer objects and Tony Cragg's rainbow plastic floor
piece Spectrum stood out as did Roderick Buchanan's Chasing 1000 and Sinn
Féin. In this latter piece from 1990 Buchanan upset the geometry
of a white plinth by inscribing the Gaelic phrase in pencil upon the face
of the plinth. The accent above the 'e' creates a ridge on the top of the
plinth unsettling a white tea cup which balances precariously.
Sarah Lucas and Rebecca Warren both
showed pieces that suggested narratives of domestic life. Is suicide genetic?
by Lucas presented a motorcycle crash helmet made from cigarettes placed
on a smoke blackened arm chair, a burnt offering to her interest in clichés
about life, pleasure and life harming habits. Rebecca Warren's Every Aspect
of Bitch Magic was a spell made out of household debris arranged on a plinth
that included a shard of green glass, a bee in a jar and pants stretched
around a stiff white envelope. Warren had made an artwork that appeared
to be the kind of construction made when bored or when wasting time. A
spell that has significance only for its maker? These last two works refreshingly
showed little interest in craft, skill or Radio 4 poetics that dogged some
of the other works in the show.
Material Culture, however, was not
staged to open up these issues but to maintain an uneasy peace. That the
exhibition has so little to say and no position on the differences between
the works revealed a lack of nerve. The market success and media status
enjoyed by some young artists, who have little in common with the likes
of Deacon, Gormley, Opie or Davey, has been troublesome for many commentators
and curators. For this reason Material Culture is a timely, if dismal,
failure at attempting to deal with art produced in the last 5 years. Diverse
practices have emerged in circumstances shaped by a growing interest in
vernacular culture and identity amongst artists (which has unfortunately
seen the adoption of stereotypes by some), and an unprecedented media interest
in young artists, often seen as unproblematic by many of today's practitioners.
This change in circumstances does represent a generational shift of positions
and concerns which Material Culture was not keen to explore. Others have
been more forthright.
Peter Suchin, when writing on Live/Life,
astonishingly chastised much of the art on show for being amateur and badly
made, and praised work whose production values matched the rigours of critical
thought. A misguided nostalgia for the 80s and the professionalism of Neo-Conceptualism
perhaps? Adrian Searle, writing about the same show worried about beauty
and brevity and many thought that too much attention was being given to
a scene rather than concentrating on the quality of the work, Live/Life
being a telling example of this.
Quality is the issue here. It unites
those who might under other circumstances find themselves in opposing camps,
and behind this call for quality is a belief that the production of art
and culture is an ethical activity. In comparison to Material Culture,
Live/Life, despite its faults, placed an emphasis on the contingencies
of recent art production by involving independent art spaces, exhibiting
magazines and connecting different generations of artists through collaboration.
Material Culture had little interest in such a dialogical space despite
the claims that it was structured through conversations.
20 seconds of my visit to Material
culture will stay with me for a long time. One of the Middx. University
students managed to regain access to the exhibition; dressed in denim and
wearing Dolce and Gabana sunglasses he passed easily for a German tourist.
The student joined a group being conducted around the gallery by an artist.
He listened intensely and then raised his hand to ask a question.
His dry lips parted: "A large percentage
of the works on show are either owned by the Saatchi Gallery or the property
of the Lisson Gallery, I've heard of a one party state but..."
He never finished his sentence.
Ten bullets were pumped into his chest raising red craters on his denim
shirt. In slow motion he fell against the white wall, smearing a path of
red blood as his dead body fell to the floor. Gasps from the group were
quickly silenced. All exits were sealed. Two security guards stood motionless,
arms outstretched holding objects of highly polished metal, occupying similar
volume: both cold and sensual. They had delayed shooting only for a second
and then carried out their duty, just as they had been instructed. One
guard, his mouth covered by a bushy ginger moustache, raised his radio
to his lips and croaked: "Dead terrorist in gallery one." Within the hour
the only trace of the event were the small blood speckles that now decorate
Richard Deacon's Art for Other People. It never made the papers.
back to top
East European Electronic Arts Forum
12-14 April 1997
Alexei Shulgin, the first speaker
at the conference organised by Iliana Nedkova for the Foundation for Arts
and Creative Technology, described himself as "the director of a fake organisation
I established myself". It was a good introduction to the East European
world of electronic media arts, a combination of rough pragmatism - being
'director' of anything is a godsend for visa applications - and unreality
which pervaded the debates and presentations of this two-day symposium
over the first weekend of Video positive 97.
Shulgin's astute classification
of net art into those that respond to the net and those that intervene
in it - his examples were JoDi and Heath Bunting's irrational org - was
the thin end of a very large wedge. We are still at the beginnings of genuine
internat internet, and the US domination of the scene has closed our eyes,
especially in the UK, to what options other traditions can open up for
us. Perhaps this is the legacy of the cold war. We never knew, or scarcely
got a chance to find out about, the massive surrealist cultures of Eastern
Europe. We were told by our own cultural commissar that socialist realism
ruled the roost, that we wouldn't be interested, that it was all escapism
and propaganda. As a result, we only saw those miserable movies by Wajda
and Zanussi, and never saw the glorious surrealism of Wojceck Has. Svankmajer
was the only representative of Czech surrealism with a rep in the West,
and that really only after the beginning of the velvet revolution. Our
sense of Eastern Europe has been tarnished by our artistic customs officers:
galleries, museums, critics, distributors. The net begins to change this,
perhaps, but only if we can reorganise our mindsets to grasp that there
is something quite different, quite novel, quite surprising and, to use
one of the conference's buzzwords, quite estranging about the emergent
Shulgin comes from a delirious legacy
of anarchistic nihilist comedy, and authentic and living Dadaism, of which
punk's po-faced situationism was only a pallid shadow. This kind of reverent
play, this artful cunning, a million miles removed from the fatuous postmodernism
of Koons and the neo-dada of the wealthy and fashionable galleries, kept
on re-emerging in the oddest places. Tomas St. Auby presented his project
for an International Parallel Union of Telecommunications (IPTU). The real
International Union allocates the electromagnetic spectrum on an international
basis in the interests of trade and governance. The IPTU sees this as Big
Brother, and itself as Big Sister. In place of the promotion of consumerism,
it calls for a general strike of consumption, seeing in the deaf-blind
the new core of a new humanity. Taste, you see, has not much to do with
Marko Peljhan, arguing that Bosnia
is currently the most surveyed patch of ground on the planet, proposed
a counter-surveillance based on the military principles of the 'peace-keeping'
force, the weak learning from the tools of the strong. Strategy, command,
control and communications, surprise, initiative, mobility and the simple
goals of an army: these would be the watchwords of an independent satellite
communications network. Serious? Or a dark comedy? Both, especially in
what, from the floor, was described as the commodification of space in
the nation state.
Nationality too was a central factor
in the new Europe. As your correspondent began to learn something of the
difficulties and opportunities facing our colleagues, some of the mists
began to lift. About the Soros Foundation, and the network of centres it
has established across Eastern Europe, for example. George Soros, the billionaire
trader, has set up centres where training and access, and the possibility
of achieving substantial works, have become available to a large number
of participants. But in certain cases, notably in Croatia, the centres
have become the targets of verbal and occasionally physical attack. They
have been identified as invasive purveyors of ideologies and attitudes
at odds with the nationalist ideologies of power blocs and political formations,
leading youngsters away from traditional cultures and values.
You have to sense a certain ambiguity
among even the beneficiaries of the Soros Foundation. Is it true that the
West is driving a vast wedge of individualism and exploitation through
the narrow wires of the internet? Eric Klutenberg from Talinn raised these
questions poignantly, critiquing the February 1995 Cyberspace Declaration
of Independence penned by John Perry Barlow and published by the Electronic
Frontier Foundation. Their attack on the US Telecommunications Reform Act
in the name of a post-national, post-legal, post-political individualism
was naive, simplistic, reactionary, even Cartesian, linked to gnostic hatred
of the body, and profoundly anti-social. These values, too, have a claim
on Eastern Europe, where freedom has become an almost theological category
of thought, something perpetually demanded, yet never experienced.
Conflictual intellectual traditions
demand new modes of cultural evolution. If 'communication' was, under the
old regime, synonymous with propaganda, and the 'public sphere' with the
state, what can be made of a new order in which the commercialisation of
the media means that papers will not run stories critical of advertising
or advertisers? Where the old state supports for artists have crumbled,
but no new commercial infrastructure has come about? In which, after all,
the state TV is often the best channel for the distribution of new work,
despite everything that it has been associated with in the past?
What else has been lost? A number
of speakers made pointed calls for a recognition of the changed experience
and role of women in the old Comecon societies. Nina Czgledy noted the
loss of women in public life; Mare Tralla noted the loss of an old, paternalist
and tokenist but nonetheless effective Communist Party commitment to women's
representation. Now, she identifies a 'culture of silence', in which representation
in the political sense is replaced by representation as 'toys' and 'spinsters',
leaving open only an ironic space for womens' engagement in public culture.
Without, as Nina Czegledy again put it, "a conceptual apparatus to name
what I would now call gender politics".
Geert Lovink traced us a history
of 'independent' and 'alternative' media, arguing that the former came
to an end in 1989, when the samizdat logic (whereby cultural power was
inversely proportional to economic scale) became a victim of its own success.
'Alternative' media was always a journalistic tag. In their place, he called
for a tactical media, democratised, flexible, diffuse, semantically defined
and independent of platform, demanding a kind of sharing of resources which
neither corporate nor individualistic models can offer, and requiring a
plurality of financial models. In the case of Bulgaria, investigated by
several speakers, there exists a software infrastructure. But the authoritarianism
associated with being Comecon's central economy for software development
also led to a culture of hacking and copyright theft (not to mention viral
programming). On the one hand, this allowed a thriving electronic music
culture, seen as innocuous by the authorities. On the other, it leads Luchezar
Boyadjiev to another Dadaist art-plot: why build new networks and online
exhibition spaces when you can hack into the Virtual Louvre and hang your
works there? Why defend human rights alone, when the internet is clearly
the beginnings of a trades union movement for computers?
Speaker after speaker, especially
on the second day, offered insights in the form of demonstrations, performances
and screenings. Janos Sugar voiced a doubt many of us felt, and feel at
such occasions: were we building a new East/West, rich/poor paradigm, an
impoverished and stereotypical multiculturalism? The best argument against
this doubt was the work that followed it. Riszard Kluszinski showed pages
from a group project which included some of the most intelligent hypertext
I have yet to see, a graphical animation stack of e.e. cummings' 'leaf'
poem. Kathy Rae Huffman and Eva Wohlgemuth talked about their online dinner
parties, which take the convivial space of women's talk and the from of
the recipe book as cultural record to build new feminist technological
connectivity. Representatives from www.opennet.org talked about the importance
of Real Audio in the fight against state censorship of the airwaves, Lev
Manovitch described his Diamat Productions, with their Theory plug-ins,
and Melentie Pandelovski presented an interactive net project based on
the premise that Alexander the Great survived long enough to secure the
bases for a unified Empire, neither Christian nor Judaic, East of the Bosphorus.
The site raised questions of nationalism again, especially in the heated
zone of dispute between Greece and Macedonia (FYROM): the map excludes
both territories, and asks about a Europe whose hearty is neither Mediterranean
But perhaps of all the screened
works, the one that made the most immediate and perhaps the most lasting
impression was the talk by Enes Zlatar, who showed two pieces. The first
was a banal piece of home video, two lads skiing down a street to the accompaniment
of some dweebling pop tune. It was only as Zlatar explained that the music
hid the silence, punctuated only by machine gun fire and cannon, of the
height of the siege of Sarajevo, that the street should have been busy
with shoppers but was covered with snow, and that skiing was an expression
of longing for hills and pleasures put out of bounds by the war, that his
exordium made sense: 'Video became our dream'. By contrast, we then watched
a tape of a guy talking to camera, outdoors, about his desensitization
to the suffering of the war; cut to scenes of hospital wards and fearful
amputations; cut back to the monologist, now indicating a prone figure
behind him in the middle distance of the shot: 'You know, I don't even
know if that body is alive or dead, and I don't seem to care. And you know
what's really strange', he added, with a pause both chilling and exhilarating,
'I feel GREAT!'. For Bosnians, even after the war, there are only three
countries you can visit without a visa and all the hassle that goes with
them. In this context, the internet takes on these dimensions of the siege:
of the dream of escape and virtual travel, and as the site of an intensely
local working-through of the particularities of a very specific culture
--one from which the artists had already fled, leaving the people to make
their own art.
Discussions raged, over drinks,
in bars, through the night, at performances and at the special screening
of work from Eastern Europe held as part of the festival at the Cornerhouse,
Manchester. As Mike Stubbs from Hull Time Based Arts said on the second
morning, "This is the first time I've woken up on a Sunday morning saying,
Oh Good, the conference is still on". You felt that the moves between political
platforms and computer platforms was moving the ground under your feet.
Screened works like Czegledy's 'Tryptych' and Peter Forgacs' 'Wittgenstein
Tractatus' would blow your socks off one way; the interplay between artistic
ambition and pragmatic doggedness in the establishment of the Maribot women's
festival would blast them back on again. Not a penny dropped without the
floorboards being removed first. We have a huge amount to learn about the
relations between nationalism and art, internet and communication, software
theft and dadaism.
Perhaps nowhere more than in the
UK, or more specifically in its little nations, do we have need of these
experiences, where the ingrowing national ideologies of Little Englanders
and the more kailyard wings of Scottish Nationalists have come so close
to power. An early contribution from the floor suggested that the transnational,
the parochial and the individualist need to be rethought in a new way:
as the translocal. we have so much to learn. and we need to offer help
END NOTE: Edited proceedings
from the LEAF97 conference are available at http://www.personal.unet.com/~gas/leaf.htm
, complete with hotlinks to sites and contact addresses. The next major
event discussing these issues will be Ostranenie, to be held in Bauhaus,
Dessau. It is hoped that there will be a major Eastern European strand
at ISEA98 in Liverpool and Manchester.
back to top
Women on Art
Centre for Contemporary Art,
Lorna J. Waite
The passage of the last century has
been a long journey in the history of the writing of the consciousness
of women. This consciousness is both historical and particular, recurrent
and mutable, heterogeneous, in relation to the particularity of the political,
cultural and economic contours of the inscribed mores of women's lives.
Every struggle, language of resistance,
so to speak, is of its time and place, an echo, a continuity with past
struggle, but reactive, responsive to other external forces which do not
solely originate with questions of gender; but with other categories of
identity which shape the expression and reception and production of power
in myriad forms in public and private life.
The articulation and evolution of
feminist thinking this century is often a fragmented story, always being
found again and restored to a significant place which may ensure its recovery
and endurance but perhaps not. Structural inequalities which effect women's
lives remain persistent despite obvious changes in their form and maintenance,
Virginia Woolf's assertion that women require 'a room of one's own and
£500 a year' still holds true but perhaps translates into the contemporary
equivalent of 'a right to a house, no glass ceilings, support for carers,
job security and decent wages for work'.
The desire to discuss the contradiction
between historical progress by women and the success of the women's movement
set against the persistent presence of the institutionalised sexism was
the premise of the Women On Art Symposium held at the Centre for Contemporary
Art, Glasgow. The Symposium, it was claimed, would be the place to discuss
such continuing inequalities and gendering of power relations within 'cultural
industries' which undervalue the major contribution of women's labour,
to their social, economic and cultural function and value. It would aim
"to address a number of key challenges for women working in the cultural
industries at the present time. The main areas of debate would cover areas
-- Gender and segregation; why certain
jobs within the cultural industries are automatically sanctioned as 'female'
and others, frequently those with greater promotional prospects, creative
input and financial rewards as 'male'.
-- Working within the cultural industries
in Britain today in relation to other European countries; are women forced
to adopt a male pattern of working life which does not accommodate their
roles as primary carers? Research has shown that the majority of women
are demanding a personal/professional balance to the quality of their lives;
what are the steps towards changing this culture?
-- The importance of creativity and
lateral thinking for women within their own professional cultural environment;
are women influencing methods of training and education within this field
to the extent of changing the working culture? Can we look at role models
for women within cultural industries from outside Britain, in particular
the USA and Southern Africa.
The creation of a public space to
debate such questions concerning women is necessary, particularly given
the promise of the socio-economic analysis which underpinned the rationale
of the symposium. However, before discussing some of the features of the
symposium, the socio- economic audit of gender equality must be applied
to the symposium itself. Simply put, why was it so expensive to attend?
How many women working in Glasgow and other locations in Scotland could
afford to attend the conference when the fee was so prohibitive? If one
purpose of the symposium was to form some continuing forum then it ought
to have striven to include the participation of as many women as possible
in as many roles and relationships to the arts and particularly from within
the city to which it has civic responsibilities. Attendance fees of this
sort smack of the spectacle of a middle class philanthropy which eschews
the economic and financial austerity, funding cuts and under-resourcing
which characterises the working lives of people in organisations the symposium
was meant to target. The symposium therefore excludes those with the least
economic resources. An ironic fact.
Anyway, if you somehow could afford
to be there, the essence of the symposium's themes were perhaps most effectively
and interestingly explored in the contributions of Sue Innes, Carol Becker,
Angela Kingston and the Goat Island Performance Group.
Sue Innes' talk, Widening the Cracks
and Avoiding the Chasms, was a scholarly presentation of a sociological
analysis of the types and forms of social change which have happened in
the working and domestic lives of women since the advent of suffrage. This
was set against both the cracking face of the dominant hegemony, male defined,
with which it is in conflict and its recurring features of exclusion despite
advances by women to break down its appearance. She quoted from her book
Making It Work,
"what has changed least...is the
habit of measuring things against a male defined standard; we still use
definitions of work and progress, what counts as success, the place of
caring, and appropriate behaviour along a false axis of reason to emotion,
which are a consequence of male pre-eminence (dominance) in the public
The split between public and private
life is still considered the role of women to resolve. State legitimisation
of equality issues has the face of ineffective equal opportunities legislation
exacerbated by the continuing lack of flexible, adequate childcare and
employment practices which take account of the care responsibilities of
its employees. Despite this discrimination, women's relationship to themselves,
she argued, "had changed but an awful lot hadn't, re women's family work
and responsibilities and access to resources (low pay etc.) and also questions
of backlash and the 'crisis of masculinity'".
Paradoxically, the grater presence
of women in the labour market is synchronous with the redefinition and
redistribution of capital and the creation of the flexible, multi-skilled,
multi-part-time, contract culture of the present pay-as-little-as-you-can
labour economy. Economic differentials between women have been exacerbated
and there is a widening gap between women defined by class, ethnicity,
age, and motherhood and use value of their particular occupation.
Despite the contradictions of the
economic evidence, Sue Innes argued there has been an 'epistemic shift'
which had seen perceptions and values change and spaces, psychological
and material, where women could assert new values which are neither drawn
from traditional prescriptions of 'femininity' nor from uncritically adopting
male personae in working life which alienates other women.
This latter point--of the nature
of female behaviour in positions of power--is the meeting place of the public
and private self for women. The qualities, tensions and relationships between
the inner self and internal authority and the external self and female
expressions of leadership were one of the areas of analysis undertaken
by Carol Becker, Dean of the Institute of Chicago, in her inspiring talk
which, for myself, was the key contribution of the symposium.
The power of her thesis lay in the
importance of a psychological analysis of institutional behaviour by men
and women and the exploration of the symbolic meaning of those institutions
to the identity of its community. It is one of the tasks of a feminist
project to encourage imagination of leadership roles, yet in a manner that
does not collude with patriarchy nor use power in an unconscious, unhealthy
dynamic to repair unacknowledged wounds which result in bullying, harassment,
emotional abuse at work, hierarchical non-nurturant ego-laden environments
in which people in power project onto others their unresolved conflicts.
If women and men were to be good leaders, they must be conscious of their
own symbolic role. What is a psychologically healthy working environment
for a woman to create? It was essential for women she argued, to develop
a public self. A woman in a leadership position must demonstrate her lack
of fear of men to other women. She must show other women her comfort with
her own authority, owning her decisions and responsibilities. She must
not be the 'psychoanalytic monstrous mother' for women will look to her
for guidance of how to be comfortable with their own creativity and through
this her own sense of entitlement, a giving of psychological permission
to be, to develop power and creativity.
Carol Becker articulated her thoughts
on leadership with reference to her working class background and her relationship
with her father. It was for her more significant in an adult sense: the
assumption of equality which characterised her father's treatment of her.
In her conjoining of the psychodynamic and the public, her work is reminiscent
of Valerie Walkerdine and Carolyn Steedman, work through which women from
working class backgrounds can find themselves included.
Other highlights of the symposium
were contributions by Angela Kingston and the Goat Island Performance Group
from Chicago. In her paper Brushing Sindy's Hair, Angela Kingston informed
her ideas on the interiority of 'girlhood' from a psychoanalytic perspective,
tracing the lineaments of female identity in its totality as expressed,
rehearsed and displayed in the act of play. This centredness of identity
was not of an essential femininity, but a deeply sensual and active engagement
with the meanings of imaginary places in which the self kept order, was
in charge and effective, had power. The sustaining of this sense of self-assurance
and efficacy can be difficult for women to do, the obstacles to healthy
self-esteem are numerous. It is important for childhood parts to be integrated
into the adult woman to create the good mother internal object which it
is vital to feel if you wish to mother your own creativity and sense of
value despite the fact this does not translate into economic well being
for most women.
Lin Hixson and Mathew Goulish of
the Goat Island Performance Group from Chicago articulated the phenomenological,
philosophical method to the theory and practice of their group. They explore
the aggregates of consciousness; sensation, perception, association are
the objects of subjective analysis, the constructed unconsciousness the
source for the taking apart, digestion and rebuilding of ideas which generate
performance work. This 'first principles' approach to creativity eschews
an essentialism which interprets experience as solely prescribed by gender
and was a contribution to the symposium which had its intellectual and
linguistic roots in phenomenology and spirituality.
The symposium featured contributions
from many other women across diverse fields of interest; Janet Paisley
talked of her life in balancing writing and motherhood, Paddy Higson displayed
a shocking lack of preparation and any interest in even thinking about
womens' issues in relation to the economy of film and television, Sam Ainsley
talked of the lack of women teachers at Glasgow School of Art.
Women On Art is to be welcomed because
the paucity of public and political spaces with power which are effective
in the elimination of inequalities requires some form of initiative, action,
forum for analysis at least. The economic rationalism and the turning of
all processes of culture into products in a market place has dominated
the economy of the arts, education and health; has created new forms of
poverty, inequality, criteria of value. The inequalities in distribution
of wealth in the arts merely mirrors the broader societal context in Scotland
within which it is located. Curiously, the symposium felt placeless as
the particularities of the social, political and economic base of power
in the arts in Scotland and the consequences of not having a parliament
did not feature much in discussion. If there is to be any radical change
in eliminating discrepancies in power, the wider political picture is of
great significance to women living and working in Scotland. The potential
for a new social and political formation in a Scotland with a parliament
should have excited greater enthusiasm in the minds of the organisers.
back to top
The Real, The Virtual and the
Work of Witkin
Virtual Reality: the place where
flesh goes to die and the electronic body struggles to be born at the fin-de-millennium...1
In this essay I want to think about
the fascination contemporary culture, particularly photography, has with
the visceral and virtual body. The body is now in a very real sense 'hot'
property. No longer marginal it lies at the very centre of scientific and
cultural discourse and political and ethical debate. Kroker and Weinstein's
definition of VR (cited above) as a transitional space might be as good
a place as any from which to consider the current status of the human body
and technology. New technologies, that is opto-electronics and their application
in science and culture, which increasingly becomes a merging field, raise
fundamental questions about who we are, and how our world might be. The
body is, along with cyberspace, perceived as a final frontier and increasingly
what the body is will depend on how it is represented; on how it is understood;
on how we negotiate meaning. 2
This means not just thinking about how we are positioned by discourse,
but how we might position ourselves within discourse. 3
It means taking responsibility for the knowledge we produce. Moreover,
if we are to provide knowledge adequate to the demands of the present then
it is in the here and now that we should begin.
Current discourses about the body
and technology are for the most part fetishistic and reductionist accounts
of the present; it is not accidental that biological essentialism has been
superseded by a facile genetic essentialism which is rarely questioned.
Similarly, visual work that takes as its subject 'the body' is on the whole
assumed to be politically progressive. I am as wary of this as I am of
the critical or historical writing that accompanies the exhibition and
publication of such images. This is to say that within postmodernism such
questions are repressed. However, they are important if we are to make
some sense of the ways in which responses to what are called 'new' (although
more accurately not so new technologies) run simultaneously in opposite
directions: a projection into the future and a regression to the past.
Few would dispute that we live in
a period of rapid social change which has produced a crisis in the real;
in representation. If the present seems 'out of control' one assumption
is that if we are not in control of the present, then at least in employing
the latest electronic technology we can be involved in directing the future.
We can be masters of a virtual universe. This is a question of power. It
is the mark of a lack of political imagination and a naive faith in the
emancipatory qualities of technology that computers have been seized upon
as if a postmodern life-raft, a Star-ship Enterprise to beam us out of
the present. Within the realm of visual culture a long-discredited essentialism
of political commitment has been resurrected arguing yet again that in
the right hands, if the right people are wired, freedom is just around
At the very same moment there has
been a plea for a return to the past, to a craft-based master photography
as if we can escape from the present through a naive, nostalgic and regressive
return to the authentic experience of the photographer-as-sovereign-author
working in a pre-postmodern garden before the Fall. These positions are
two sides of the same coin. Both are marked by 'nostalgia' whether for
future or past. Both share in common the desire to transcend the present
by swiftly dispatching all those tiresome economic, political, philosophical
and ethical questions that haunt our times, which we seem unable to think
about, let alone answer. In this essay I want to explore the ways in which
our present postmodern culture is haunted not just by fantasies about the
future, but by pre-modern, that is medieval beliefs. I take as my examples
medical imaging and art photography. While bodies and technologies have
no origins, they do have histories and these need to be traced.
I want to argue that what is repressed
in medical imaging returns in the realm of contemporary art. As medical
imaging has become more abstract, less meaty, art has become more visceral;
more bodily. The techno-futuristic realm of medical imaging provides a
framework in which to consider the photographic images of Joel-Peter Witkin.
The first epitomises a nostalgia for the future and the latter a yearning
for the past. Both are characteristic of postmodernism. Witkin (and many
others) exercise tight authorial control. It would, for example, be impossible
for the critique that follows to appear alongside his photographs. This
is undoubtedly a form of censorship. I primarily focus upon his work and
his use of cadavers and body parts as a means to discuss what is a more
general trend within the art market. Broadly, the arguments presented here
could be applied to other artists such as Hirst or Serrano; to recent publication
of photographs from medical and police archives or to artists' illegal
acquisition of body parts from morgues in order to make work. Witkin's
work is only distinguished by its extremity. Whatever way you look at it
there is a market, a trade in bodies and they are not virtual.
This might tell us something about
the present popular fascination with medical images of the human body.
Medical images, especially abstract images produced by such methods as
photomicrography or radiography have largely been ignored by historians
of photography. Where they are used by historians of medicine, these images
are usually treated as unproblematic illustration. These images have been
located in archives; their authors are usually anonymous; access is restricted.
Recently, however, computer generated medical imagery has become widely
circulated to a keen viewing public. Ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging,
tomography are remote technologies with a history rooted in techno-military
warfare. The images they produce are seductive and because they offer us
so much to see, we marvel at their beauty and so tend to overlook what
has been excised. On closer inspection we begin to notice that all traces
of bodily disorder, mess, chaos are removed. The desire here is for clean-cut,
flattened, soft, seamless imagery. The result is a highly sanitised, orderly
vision of the body. A simulated depth is complemented by, which is to say
aestheticised by, the use of electronically generated colour, providing
an almost hallucinogenic quality. Moreover, vessel, cell or gene is isolated
from its ground so that the object in view seems to float alone in space
and allows our eye only to focus on this or that element as if totally
unrelated to the body. Flesh is reduced to abstract information. It is
no longer that the body is fragmented but rather it is dematerialised (technologies
such as x-ray and electron microscope played an important role here) and
finally disappears, as if the visceral is what we most fear. We could describe
this as a kind of postmodern flaying where we are now eager participants
in such disciplinary processes and therefore medical images once circulated
to a private audience can now be safely shown publicly. They appear in
everyday culture as a display of power, not of humans but of intelligent
machines. It is the body that becomes a ghost while its pictures are living,
teeming with life, even after death.
This more anonymous context is important
to an understanding of Witkin's work. He argues that he wants his prints
to "look like old photographs that have been hidden in someone's attic
and suddenly brought to light". 4
To this end he employs formal theatrical props of nineteenth century photography:
the proscenium arch; the use of the curtain, the fetishistic techniques
of a dark photographic and fine art printing. The space within the frame
is compressed, congested with detail, depthless. This is further emphasised
by the use of collaged backdrops. In neo-medieval, or neo-neo-classical
spectacle, he conjures up the spectres of Dürer or David, as if to
flatter the viewer's art historical knowledge, but also to make us intelligent
consumers of what has already been consumed.
This formal ordering is combined
with a grotesque content of sutured foetuses, stumps and cadavers in various
states of decay thus producing a powerful mingling of the aesthetic and
the medical which verges on the pornographic. What once coalesced on the
anatomy table, now congeals in the bloody tableaux created in Witkin's
studio. This work has a history in anatomical dissection (a more adult
version of infantile sadism), religious iconography (with its simultaneous
elevation and degradation of women), and pornography (the body as meat).
But it is a history of which Witkin cannot speak. Such a history can, however,
be traced in wax Venuses of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The
pose of these female dolls closely resembles that of swooning saints, as
well as the standardised pose of pornographic models. Laid out on velvet,
satin or silk, like toys they could be opened up and the viewer could see
the mysterious organs of the interior, particularly reproductive. For Witkin,
the past, like the body can be cut just how one wants. Witkin is also an
editor of privately printed books: Masterpieces of Medical Photography,
1987; Gods of Heaven and Earth, 1989; Harm's Way, 1994. In a process of
representational asset-stripping, images are wrenched from archives of
police, medicine, asylums. Re-assembled and re-contextualised they are
beautifully re-printed on matt art paper, bound in cloth and produced in
'limited' editions of 5,000. Witkin is keen to display his academic credentials
and commissions scientists, art historians, medics to write essays which
lend a specious credibility to his art. Those who had remained below the
threshold of vision until the nineteenth century; those classified as 'other'
were brought into view so that they could be made to disappear into 'ignoble'
archives in what was an act of representational liquidation. Here they
are resurrected. What was once tragedy becomes farce. The dead or merely
different return not as subjects in their own right, but only as so much
grist to the mill of art.
Witkin's preferred technique is
to gouge, lacerate, scratch the negatives; the prints are then toned, death
is warmed up, faux-foxed, spattered with potassium cyanide, which gives
the appearance of decay. The result is a stained and abused image. It shares
this distinguishing mark with the pornographic image. Finally, with the
use of encaustic the prints are redemptively polished in a bogus act of
reparation and sanctification. 5
This simulates the fate of bodies. Witkin becomes a kind of textual anatomist.
The skin of the photographic emulsion stands as metaphor for human skin.
Bodies once wounded, bound, masked or gagged, are finally killed and chopped
up like so many pieces of meat. 6
This is a metaphoric and literal scavenging; a cannibalisation of styles
and bodies; a chilling universe in which bodies are collapsed into texts;
reality into fantasy.
But bodies are not texts; aesthetics
are not ethics any more than virtuality is reality. The bodies and cadavers
come from the geographical margins and the recently deregulated markets
of eastern block countries which have recently become a sort of playground
for Western artists. 7
Bodies become commodities, articles of trade, like any other. They are
easy to come by for those with money and power. These bodies, cadavers
or human remains, alive or dead, are objects with one last value which
can be bought whole or in part. There is a trade in bodies, whereby the
poor, while still alive, are forced to sell their organs, their bodies,
their children, sometimes their lives. What Witkin produces is a system
of representation that reinforces the mercenary logic of a global market
economy which is little more than a form of corporate feudalism.
The lie of voyeurism is, of course,
that the object agrees to its exhibition. These 'other' surplus bodies,
with heads laterally or literally severed can't look back. Those who were
once subjects become objects, and in an act of subjugation are made to
bear the burden, the sheer material weight of corporeality and finally
death so that the artist, and the viewer, can have eternal life.8
In the killing fields of central Europe, or central America, maiming, torture
and death are all too close to home and so we prefer our corpses, like
history, dressed up.
This is the final irony: Witkin's
world is a universe where all boundaries are gone and yet such a world
can only exist in one of the most hidebound of institutions: the art gallery,
which in the late twentieth century is little more than a showroom for
the art market. This market is one with a voracious appetite for indelicacies.
The 'waning of affect' as we approach the end of the millennium has led
to an increased and as yet unsatisfied demand for butchered bodies and
strong meat, so long as it is well hung. We should be more critical.
1 A Kroker and M Weinstein, Data
Trash, 1994, p162
2 See D Haraway, 'A Manifesto for
Cyborgs', Socialist Review, no. 80, 1985: R Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects,
3 See S Hall, 'Cultural Identity
and Cinematic Representation', Framework, no. 36, 1989
4 Interview, Border Crossings, Winter
5 It is Witkin's wife who carries
out this last rite.
6 Witkin is keen to emphasise that
he does not tamper with the bodies, as if the process of choice of object
is not part of the process of making work.
7 Witkin claims his 'moral and ethical
stringency' in obtaining access to bodies. Permission, where it cannot
be agreed by the person because of reasons of insanity or death is always
sought and agreed by doctors as 'representatives of the State'. J-P Witkin,
public lecture, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, October 1995. These are bodies
which no one has claimed; Head of a Dead Man was a victim of police brutality
in Mexico City. More recent pictures are of asylum inmates in Budapest,
Hungary. This exhibits a truly remarkable lack of moral judgement and artistic
8 '[T]ruthfully they are aspects
of my own self', Journal of Contemporary Art, op. cit.
p112. There is a world of difference
between trying to understand the self as other and the narcissism of viewing
others as part of oneself.
back to top
Economics and Nuthatches
This essay morphed (cool, I'm in
with the under fives) out of the research Marc Lambert and I did for the
Edinburgh International Science Festival lectures. Rather than cack-handedly
present a précis of all ten lectures, I thought it more appropriate
to focus on one of the "emergent structures" of the lectures, a sub-text
that ran through all: the epistemological divisions within science. On
the one hand there were those whose work seemed to me more akin to the
artistic (i.e. assimilative, analogical and essentially--as opposed to peripherally--interdisciplinarian).
On the other, there were those whose work was firmly embedded in the laws
of (as Richard Dawkins terms it) 'hierarchical reductionism.'
This dialectic (examined in the
first part of this essay) is far more applicable to art and artists than
any naive description of science's gizmos and weirdness. Boy's toys may
be fun for some, but they are best fiddled with behind closed doors.
The distinction between a rationalist
determinism and libertarianism has underpinned economic debate for over
200 years now. One of the most curious aspects of the science/arts debate
over the last 20 years is how the most vociferous proponents of scientific,
hierarchical determinism have tended towards extreme conservative libertarianism
in economic areas (Matt Ridley being one of the best examples of this tendency).
Visual arts provision, and in particular in the public arts, would appear
to be an exact inversion of this tendency: state sponsored libertarianism.
In the second section, I argue that current practice would be improved
by a lessening of the current pseudo-competitive environment in which the
public arts function.
1. Beauty is the Beast
"Art does no longer serve any institutions;
it has become autonomous. I can not describe the new situation, since art
can not be described. It proves itself only in its performance. First of
all, I can feel that something is expected of art and of me, some sort
Gerhard Richter Interview in Noch
"So what is reflexivity?...Social
scientists have long been concerned that their discipline is markedly different
from natural science because the very act of observing economic and social
life changes what is being observed."
Will Hutton paraphrasing George
The State To Come
"...the hierarchical reductionist
believes that carburettors are explained in terms of smaller units ...which
are explained in terms of smaller units ...which are ultimately explained
in terms of the smallest fundamental particles. Reductionism, in this sense
is just another name for an honest desire to understand how things work."
Richard Dawkins The Blind Watchmaker
Hierarchical determinism is merely
a procedure. It is not, as Dawkins points out akin (in itself) to baby
eating or sin. As a procedure it is morally neutral. When applied appropriately
it has proven an invaluable tool for our understanding. It is however not
the only intellectual process, nor is it the summation of everything that
is intrinsically human. In discussing the interface between art and science
one needs to be aware of the pitfalls of such an approach. One needs to
be aware that whilst morally neutral in itself, the implications of hierarchical
determinism are political in the extreme.
In its end oriented, obsessive and
exclusive application of the truth, (the truth in this sense being the
method of observation as opposed to the observed) the mechanistic wing
of the science sect displays its limits. This approach, whilst providing
the logos necessary to cohere seemingly disparate phenomena and observed
magnetic phenomena), proves hopelessly inadequate when applied to self-reflexive
phenomena (things which "bite back": artists for example). John Barrow's
floundering (though honest) attempts to understand how visual art works
in terms of our inherited aesthetic preference for certain landscapes is
an eloquent testament to this. The determinism is exemplary: art ...artist
...artist's propensity for certain aesthetic judgements ...artist's evolutionary
lineage ...genetic basis for artist's production. This approach, of course,
explains nothing beyond a tautological elucidation of its own procedures.
As proof for his argument Barrow
examples only works showing traits of his argument. This kind of selectivity
of evidence would be a mere curio were it not symptomatic of the wider
problem in science's approach. By a generalisation of the particulars of
artistic production (in any way that is meaningfully scientific according
to Dawkin's rules of hierarchical reductionism) one fundamentally misses
the importance and veracity of any visual culture, composed as it is of
constantly shifting significance, both personally and historically.
It is this peculiarly "general"
nature of the determinist process, which both underpins the success of
science writing (it is easier to sell a commodity if the spin is generally
applicable), but has also proven the bête noir of determinism itself.
Whilst science is great at building planes, for example, it is singularly
incapable of understanding the particularities of the complex vortex mechanics
that enable it to fly. Art also relies on the particular: each and every
human has their own artistic inclinations and motivations and this is the
capitalist realist logic lying behind the quote of Gerhard Richter cited
earlier. On this level the form of science in question can be illuminating
if only to throw into perspective the deeply moral, political and economic
heurism of the artistic approach. In highlighting the difficulties of a
process which has led humanity so wildly astray in so many areas, one can
easily fall into the trap of a nihilistic rejectionism. The creative possibilities
of recognising a valid pluralistic counter-ideology are great and offer
a positive alternative to such nihilism, albeit one far more difficult
to sell to a public weaned on sound bite polemicism, and, whose idea of
anti-science stops at such inanities as the X-Files. Just to stay true
to my 'hypocritical oath,' here are a couple of polemic sound bites for
Two outcomes of determinism: mass
slaughter and great writing.
Mary Midgley recently told me of
a thing she witnessed at a science and theology conference in Oxford. An
eminent biologist delivered a speech in which he decried the teaching of
subjects which, as he saw, offered non-scientific "falsehoods". A kind
of scientific correctness. Certainly, whilst this is an extreme example,
there is a pervasive fundamentalism at the heart of the world's most influential
ideology: scientism. (If you want to get irrationally worried about this
inexplicable and seemingly amoral new sect, the Gulf War did happen, the
erasing of Basra and its people did happen, and it was an "achievement"
of science. Compared to the scientific fundamentalists, the various nationalists
and religionists are but pups in arms).
Since the mid-late 1970s science
has had more than its fair share of eloquent spokespeople. From Carl Sagan,
through Richard Feynmann, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawkings, Steven Jay
Gould, E.O. Wilson, etc. These were not the eccentric boffins of yore plying
their wares on the OU at 3 in the morning with Kipper ties. These were
multimillion copy selling authors, lean marketing dreams, on the cutting
edge both of science's ever advancing new dawn and of popular culture.
Such a marketing phenomenon has
not happened in art writing. Indeed, for reasons quoted previously, it
may prove impossible. The political fall-out from this however is that
art, such a potentially and essentially hopeful endeavour, may be forever
marginalised somewhere between pop-videoism and client led fascism.
Not wishing to play the role of
excuser for bad writers, there are real problems for anyone wishing to
"sell" art. Paradoxically, chief among the problems is art's great strength:
namely its particular nature. Whilst science writers can appear coherent
by applying general principles across the board, art writers have no such
luxury. The tendency, therefore, is to concoct general principles (to play
the science game. My own possible hypocrisy), or to get bogged down in
terminological semantic/pedantic arguments, pat historicising, or vain
attempts at neutral description. All these approaches may be (but rarely
are) interesting in themselves, but they miss the point. Art is analogical
and assimilative, concepts and arguments are drawn together (as opposed
to analysed or dissected). Art exists in dialogue only. This communicative
(discursive) principle has been largely ignored by art writers (scientists
and economists have however long been fascinated by it: David Bohm, Noam
Chomsky, Danah Zohar, Will Hutton to name but a few). Considering the central
role it plays at all levels of artistic production/dissemination such an
omission is surprising.
In the second section of this essay,
I wish to focus on the system within which, in Scotland at least, most
contemporary art is shown, namely the public gallery. The implications
I draw could equally be applied to science's equivalent to these spaces,
i.e. the research department.
2. Towards a Stakeholding Arts
"Mechanism stresses hierarchy. It
structures existence according to ever-descending units of analysis. Molecules
are more basic than neurones, atoms more basic than molecules. We structure
power and organisation in the same ladder of ascending and descending authority."
Danah Zohar & Ian Marshall The
"Mechanical methods and models of
simple causal explanations are increasingly inapplicable as we advance
to such complex phenomena. In particular, the crucial phenomena determining
the formation of many highly complex structures of human interaction, i.e.
economic values or prices, cannot be interpreted by simple causal or 'nomothetic'
theories, but require explanation in terms of the joint effects of a larger
number of distinct elements than we can ever hope individually to observe
Friedrich Hayek The Fatal Conceit
Public galleries are in a curious
position at the moment. Ostensibly they are publicly funded bodies whose
income is allocated by a quasi-governmental organisation, and who have
to unofficially compete for funding whilst officially keeping up the pretence
of autonomy. This means that all competition takes place well out of the
official channels: a cosy but none too dynamic situation. To further understand
the problems and implications of this a general overview from a neo-Keynsian
perspective proves illuminating. Firstly however, a word about nuthatches.
High in the Petite Kabyle Mountains
of northern Algeria, in pine forests that form the upper limit of the tree
zone, there lives a small and incredibly scarce bird: the Kabyle Nuthatch.
It was discovered in 1975 and is one of the rarer birds of the world. Taxonomically
it is very similar to the Corsican Nuthatch, varying only in the markings
of its cap. Both are examples of divergent evolution in closed gene systems.
Isolation is the key to their species status, it could also be the key
to their extinction in years hence. Isolates are constantly under threat
of extermination from environmental change. If gene pools are small, they
are also highly susceptible to genetic ossification, i.e. the entropic
propensity of any closed system: in this case a heterogeneous species.
Such a situation makes the "sufferer" far more likely to succumb to an
inherited disorder. Mutations of this sort multiply rapidly through a small
population. The effects can be devastating. In human group dynamics, whether
on a personal or economic level, factionalism can have just as destructively
an ossifying effect.
Economically, of course, factionalism
cuts two ways. In a competitive environment it can be beneficially motivational.
However, in sectors reliant on the nurturing of creative endeavour, the
effect will be similar to that of isolation for a species: potentially
catastrophic. And herein lies the problem with the current quango led pseudo-community
public art system. The problem is one of emphasis at the funding level.
Instead of engendering a "malicious/competitive" climate, the funders should
be no less than demanding the creation and maintenance of an open community
policy in the arts, where stress is laid firmly on the interdisciplinary
and the inter-organisational. Only by doing so will the arts move away
from the 1980s, in which they have remained, along with much of British
"industry". The key to such an approach is that of social sanction and
motivation, a principle which can only succeed if built upon bonds of trust
within a community. A digression is important here to set this in a wider
In the past, and in certain cutting
edge industries today, similar interests have built up around each other.
London is a working embodiment of this principle. The City, Fleet Street,
Soho, Westminster, all are areas designated (by the invisible hand of the
old market) to a particular "industry". This does not happen by magic.
Business is conducted by people. People talk, that's how business works
at its best: mouth to mouth. Businesses are built on related businesses.
Such networks prove more efficient if they are proximate. In the 1980s
this simple logic, under pressure for fast dividend return, was rejected.
However, what was gained in short term "competitiveness" has been more
than matched by what has been lost, namely the communication infrastructures,
the social and commercial accessibility of related industries and businesses,
and possibly more importantly, the workforce security.
Of course proximate industries are
not the only ones where the vitality of interaction is an essential prerequisite
to success. Within any given sector, the possibilities are there for communities
(i.e. groupings of companies sharing information for the common good of
all) to arise. The public arts and the research sciences are two such "communities".
In loosely affiliated interest groups
there are two forms of motivating and regulating principles: competition
and social sanction. The first as explained earlier, is reliant on division,
distinction, leading to a disintegration of services (or an increase in
choice depending on your personal inclinations in spin-phrasing). More
importantly, it is reliant on a separatist view: us and them. For the second
to work, separatism is anathema, bonds of trust must be created and built
on. Both organisational principles have their place. Competition motivates
industry and retail in ways that the old collectivist principles simply
couldn't. In publicly funded organisations and in research, however, social
sanction is more appropriate: competition is far too brutal in "its" treatment
of failures. People must be provided the space to fail in: this is the
key to innovation. "Fail again, fail better" as Beckett would say.
Where there is no share pressure
(e.g. in the publicly funded cultural industries), the creation and maintenance
of the underpinning of bonds of trust should be a priority. Once instigated,
those in their communities of production should explicitly utilise the
benefits offered, by talking and working together. Without such crossover,
communities are rent asunder as surely as if they had been bulldozed. And
that brings us neatly back to the cultural debate and to nuthatches, a
long digression but necessary.
The arts "community" in Scotland,
and this applies to Britain as a whole, because of the peculiar "fictive
free-market" within which it operates, seems to exhibit many of the features
of the nuthatches: namely, small isolated groups of mutually antagonistic
factions. Interesting in themselves, but with so little contact between
them that any innovation in one is seen as a threat by the others. There
is no cross-pollination of ideas, no serious "joint initiatives". Pride
and puerility keep the factions apart. If the potential of all is to be
realised, a little humility must be exercised by all. No single faction
or individual has in its grasp the panacea, the way towards a cultural
utopia. We learn from each other or we cease to learn. The factionalism
in cultural quarters is, to an extent, inevitable if left unchecked. The
public funding bodies have in the past been far too lax at regulating their
market. The result is, as an outsider, obvious: far too many individuals
seem to be crassly following the narrow dictates of their own career paths,
heedless to the needs of artists and public alike. They appear not to care
whether they hold a stake in Scotland's future cultural development. If,
as Pavel Buchler intimated in Variant 2, (Vol. 2) such development does
look bleak, the primary reason will be because it is in the hands of people
unwilling to talk without bitching, or to act without back stabbing. It
would indeed be an unnecessary shame; what a waste of a valuable asset.
High in the Kabyle Mountains of
northern Algeria is a dwindling population of reasons why the individuals
who live by factionalism should have a rethink.
back to top
Virtue and Vice
Derivations of Allegory in Contemporary
Site Gallery, Sheffield 11th
'Allegory means 'other speech' (alia
oratio), from allos, other, and agoreuein, to speak openly; it signifies
an open declamatory speech which contains another layer of meaning.'1
The connection between words and
pictures has been prominent in western art since the European Renaissance.
The Church used symbolism in Religious Art, with the intention for an interpretation
by all. This was based on the notion of universal references and the power
of propaganda. At the same time, the Neo-Platonic educated minority of
the Italian Renaissance used visual allegory to open a range of interpretations,
only fully legible by the cultured elite.
The evolution of photography has
seen a progression in the autonomous form of image-making. Over the last
hundred years, visual language has evolved and the mass saturation of images
has been complicated by 'the fact that less than at any time does a simple
reproduction of reality tell us anything about reality', therefore, 'something
has actually to be constructed, something artificial, something set up'
in order for it to relate within contemporary society.2
The theory of allegory is concerned
with centrally placed objects, persons or personifications intending to
represent one thought by way of another. These thoughts open many dimensions.
The substance of photographic allegories consist of visual images which
encompass an entire entity of a concept and is more than just the reinterpretation
of words. The surrealist artists pioneered the concept of creative and
constructive photography, yet, allegory has been largely suppressed in
modern creative practise. This is redressed in the exhibition Virtue and
Vice at the Site Gallery in Sheffield. The show includes work from Helen
Chadwick, Sorel Cohen, Karen Knorr, Dany Leriche, Paloma Navares, Bernhard
Prinz and Olivier Richon.
The work shown in Virtue and Vice
slips neatly into several categories. Sorel Cohen, Karen Knorr and Paloma
Navares explore issues within feminist critical practice. Bernhard Prinz
and Dany Leriche demystify the notion of the human form as cultural language.
Olivier Richon's concepts derive from historical and literary sources which
are then transformed into philosophical and rhetorical statements. Helen
Chadwick uses 17th and 18th century allegorical symbols and produces ambiguous
compositions that re-present allegory in contemporary photographically
Within these texts, the relationship
with a painterly language is always apparent. These constructed images
revel in stillness. The compositions are quiescent, captured by the camera
prompting an awareness of the optical unconscious with the business of
technology recording a segment of time. Yet, the content of the work is
firmly based in an established allegorical aesthetic.
The act of looking at an image,
which by its very nature is open to alternative readings, is one which
can be daunting. It plays on the insecurities of understanding and can
be compared to seeing an actual photograph for the very first time. The
photographer Karl Dauthendey comments on one of the first forms of photography,
the daguerreotype: 'People were afraid at first, to look for any length
of time at the pictures (he) produced. They were embarrassed by the clarity
of these figures and believed that the little, tiny faces of the people
in the pictures could see out at them, so amazing did the unaccustomed
detail and the unaccustomed truth to nature of the first daguerreotype
pictures appear to everyone'.3
The digitally produced photo-work
Isabelle et Dominique (1995) by French artist Dany Leriche contains a literal
search for truth. Leriche has referred to Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors
(1533) which acts simultaneously as a double portrait and a memento mori
containing a skull in the foreground that only comes into perspective when
seen from an angle. In this contemporary reworking, as well as questioning
gene manipulation and atomic energy, Leriche has also included a life-size
model of a human skull in the form of a digital 3D illusion. This 3D image
is supposed to act as a reminder that there are other ways of seeing the
world and other dimensions existing within this one. This actual physical
'allegory' has, for myself, posed the question as to whether I can really
see the skull image or not and if I cannot see the 3D illusion, am I effectively
excluded from the work?
The exhibition at the Site Gallery
opened with a conference aptly titled, "I Can't Explain it all Myself".
Speakers included Fred Orton, Rosemary Betterton, Karen Knorr, Dany Leriche,
Bernhard Prinz and Olivier Richon. The conference aimed to investigate
further the notion of allegory in current photographic practise and in
doing so, opened up an arena for conceptual conjecture. One of the issues
which was questioned was the relationship between form and content. The
concept of ideal forms and forms of reality: ideas and images, sign and
text. According to Olivier Richon, allegory has 'hidden intentions' in
contrast to symbol, which is seen as 'pure and traditionally opens the
area of aesthetics.'4
Symbol in photography is viewed
for itself and for an immediate emotive sensational response. Allegory,
then, is a perversion of symbol, a conceptual remote unemotional commentary.
Yet, by the very nature of photography, symbol is always present. Olivier
Richon's The Academy (1995) is a parody of Cesare Ripa's 16th century book.
The six-part series includes animal and vegetable objects in a bizarre
twist on the theme of still-life, placing it within the discourses of art
and art history while exploring the visual statement and its values. An
object as symbol, however, will always be viewed as an object, and as part
of a composition an object can also be used to represent allegorical meanings.
Angus Fletcher commenting on allegory
has suggested that 'while allegorical intention is usually under a high
degree of authorial control, means are available whereby the controlling
rigours are softened or the simplifying effects of control are counteracted
by various devices of complication, chief of which is an ironical gaze
turned in upon the work itself'.5
This depends on a common system of reference, with the viewer actively
engaged in decoding the signs as the site of questioning. It is a rendition
from the visual experience to the textual experience and by drawing our
own interpretations, variability is increased as well as the aesthetic
value of the allegory.
Gay Clifford expresses in his book
Transformations of Allegory (1974 Routledge) that the very labour of working
things out is a part of the pleasure. This is also based on an assumption
that an allegorist has access to an audience prepared to undertake the
task, in a desire to know and understand. Mediaeval authors believed it
was their function to assist moral speculation and decision through the
allegorical interpretations of the Bible and they reached their audience
from the pulpit. The Renaissance allegorists used the form in an aridly
scholastic mode which was regulated by the literate and cultured elite.
The ambiguity surrounding an allegorical style has bred condemnation and
denunciation throughout history precisely for its apparent exclusion and
So what place, if any, does allegory
hold in contemporary photography? The works in the Virtue and Vice exhibition
could be described as catering for a knowing audience, which to a certain
extent, is true. Karen Knorr's series Academies (1994-95) comments on the
status of women within the Royal Academy and follows a general theme which
explores rigid ideas of the privileged elite of British Society. Knorr
cleverly deconstructs the indulgence of this social and cultural class
with such subtlety, the full extent of the irony can only really be appreciated
by an 'informed' audience. That isn't to say, alternative readings can
not be made. The beauty of allegory is it has no 'one' meaning. The concepts
are continually evolving and it is flexible enough to be adapted into postmodernist
society. Allegory's historic role in interpreting moral values is passing
and is used today predominantly in advertising, placing hidden meanings
upon products, with the ambiguity of the allegory revealing the true Virtue
and Vice of the social norms and values of our times.
Visual images are vastly used as
signifiers with constantly changing terms of reference which seem vacant
and devoid of context. These images within today's mass media are easily
consumable symbols. They are encountered quickly and are disregarded in
the same way. A visual language has evolved in the consumer culture, containing
stylised images and a generation of stereotypes. Bernhard Prinz invites
the viewer to read his images in a 'blatant' allegorical way. Prinz's series:
Blessur (1996) is the showcase of Virtue and Vice and is easily the most
accessible work in the exhibition. The images are slick, seductive and
have the feel of an advertisement campaign for Benetton or Gap. Prinz takes
androgynous young figures and places them in classical portraiture poses.
The theme of the series is appearance and skin surface combined with issues
of contemporary codes and morality. His models are from the street and
are chosen for their gesture and look. The images Prinz creates are blank
canvas, so to speak, waiting for interpretations to be added by the viewer.
The apathetic protagonists gaze out from the large-scale photographs; this
is real life, this is allegory of the everyday.
This play with the attitudes of
popular culture highlights a genuine issue in postmodern photographic discourse.
Over a century ago at photography's conception, critic Antoine Wiertz proposed
that 'When the daguerreotype, this giant-child has grown up, when all his
skill and power has unfolded, then genius will suddenly seize him by the
scruff of the neck and cry in a loud voice: ...Now you belong to me. We
shall work together'.6
Has this 'giant-child' grown up?
Is there a need to reinvent the language of photography in a more obscure
form in reaction to the consumable images of the mass media? Could this
language be the form and content of visual allegory, a tradition of Renaissance
painting? Current photographic practise is suffused with derivations of
this art historical concept. Contemporary photographers Cindy Sherman,
Maude Salter, the late Robert Mapplethorpe and others working in the last
decade, have openly used allegory in their work. The Surrealist movement
and the Avant Guard incorporated allegorical terms throughout their practise.
Perhaps this 'pulling back' of creativity in photography, at this point
in time, is just a device in order to diversify the medium.
Within the tradition of historic
visual allegory, the work of Dany Leriche, in the Virtue and Vice exhibition,
fits closest to the mark. Leriche creates classical compositions using
the likes of Holbein, Caravaggio, Ingres and Vermeer as starting points.
The large format pale nudes present the female form, as seen by a woman,
in a historical setting dealing with contemporary cultural issues. However,
the transition from painting to photography changes the perception of these
images. As a Renaissance painting, the secondary information acts as a
periphery that encases the image from the truest sense of reality. The
almost life-size prints by Leriche, force an unnatural truth upon the viewer
which is so real, it becomes uncomfortable to view. Nudes in photography
have, in the past, had an association with pornography, and the graphic
depiction of the naked body in this work can be likened to that association,
for the simple reason of realistic photographic representation. Leriche's
work is never titillating or frivolous, yet the reality of the nakedness
exposes questions of voyeurism, exploitation and morality.
Allegory as morality has all but
disappeared in its present use. Contemporary photographic allegorists tend
to use the idea of morality as a concept to work against. Many of the works
in the exhibition feature exotic animals, alive, dead or preserved by taxidermy
and Bernhard Prinz, in his series of photographs, includes a large format
image of his infant son, an apparent virtue covered in the vice of chicken
pox. Like a photograph, the artists in this exhibition have taken something
temporary and frozen it in time and it is through inspecting the nature
of these photographic objects that patterns and links can be established
between them. The Virtue and Vice in this exhibition is viewed as a commentary
on current social and political norms, of which morality is seen as being
just as ambiguous as the allegorical meanings.
There is a strong sense of feminism
throughout the exhibition, particularly within the work of Sorel Cohen,
Karen Knorr and Paloma Navares. These artists question the representation
of the female body in western iconography. The sources of the texts originate
within a historical context and are then transformed into the present to
personify feminism today. The female models presented by all of the artists
in this exhibition are strong, somewhat melancholic liberated women. Cohen,
in particular, recontextualises her photo-works by juxtaposing images for
multiple visual allegoric readings. The series The Body that Talks (1996),
is based on a psychoanalyst's couch and the panel that accompany the images
are extracts from Freud's Observations on Transference-Love dating from
1915. The fact that Cohen herself visits a psychoanalyst, brings to the
work an angle on the tangible void that exists between an artist's personal
and prolific experience.
Marina Warner in her book Monuments
and Maidens states that 'Meanings of all kinds flow through the figures
of women, and they often do not include who she herself is.'7
This is true of all of the female figures represented in the exhibition
Virtue and Vice. Feminist critique is very conscious in the work and in
the attempt to stage contemporary allegories in historical contexts results
in a detachment which is evident in all the models, an ambivalent neutrality
that prevails throughout, in order for a general validity to be imposed
by an audience.
There is almost a clinical fascination
with the logistics of the female body in this exhibition, a scientific
exploration of the female form which results in an idolisation of women.
This is apparent in the work of Paloma Navares whose installation Light
of hibernation (1995) includes materials such as Plexiglass tube, fluorescent
light, display cabinets and transparent plastics. More than anything, the
female images represented in the exhibition intend to remember the female
body that has been exploited for politics, propaganda and pleasure, and
re-address the stereotyped opinions about the female form in western culture.
For American critic Craig Owens,
allegory is 'something turned into something else ...one text read through
that photography as a medium pertains to a visual world removed from itself.
This is eloquently displayed by all of the artists included in Virtue and
Vice in a commentary that stresses interpretation and a particular mode
of reading images which is found within the structure of an allegorical
text. The embodiment of allegory without personification is present in
the work of British artist Helen Chadwick's (1953-1996) contribution to
the Virtue and Vice exhibition. Chadwick's triptych consisting of two Wreaths
to Pleasure 1 & 10 (1993) and Mundo Positivo (1995) explores substance,
physical elements and the human body. Moreover, the use of ambiguity obscures
typification. In this series of work, Chadwick's source material is expressive
and unconventional. Blackberries, bath foam, flower petals and condensed
liquids are formed into geometric patterns and photographed as cibachromes.
The elements of opposition are always present in the work; repulsion and
adoration, beauty and vulgarity, body and spirit. Again, Chadwick has frozen
the organic and perishable and forced it into the realm of immortality
combining metaphor with allegory. Mundo Positivo, itself, is a work is
based on raising awareness about the HIV virus and AIDS and therefore,
is something turned into something else.
Photography is addressed and validated
in Virtue and Vice as more than a specific practice, it questions the representation,
rhetoric and aesthetic of an image. The photography presented is elevated
to high art reminiscent of the masterly skill of great Renaissance art.
The exhibition explores the relationship between photography and the object.
The camera absorbs objects in order to make an image. As an image, these
objects become analogical signs and as a sign the object has transcended
what it was before and become something else or an allegorical other. Terry
Eagleton, writing on allegory reminds us that the 'allegorical object has
undergone a kind of haemorrhage of spirit: drained of all immanent meaning,
it lies as a pure facticity under the manipulative hand of the allegorist,
awaiting such meaning as he or she may imbue it with.'9
Virtue and Vice is a thematic exhibition
following earlier exhibitions entitled Hommages & Remakes (1988), Grotesque
(1989) and Minimal Relics (1992?1993). The contributors here are all working
with different methods and agendas which reveal one constant: the same
use of an art historical mode capable of subsuming many different genres
and forms. An exhibition like this is a representation of the theoretical
implications of our time. A comment on the activity of photography, the
idea of autonomy and self-sufficiency, received ideas of beauty and taste
and the language of repetition and reinterpretation. For the visual texts
in this exhibition will nonetheless prevail as photographic images and
these texts will always fulfil a didactic function regardless of the obscurity
of the allegory.
Currently the Virtue and Vice exhibition
is showing at Watershed in Bristol until 6 July before moving to Nottingham
University Arts Centre and Portalen Køge Bugt Kulturhus in Denmark.
Unfortunately, Helen Chadwick's Wreaths to Pleasure 1 & 10 (1993) will
not be travelling and has been returned to Southampton City Art Gallery.
1 Warner, M., Monuments & Maidens,
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1985, Foreword p xix
2 Brecht, B., Quote--Benjamin, W.,
A short history of photography, SCREEN, Spring 1972. First published in
The Literariche Welt, 18th September 1931.
3 Dauthendey, K., Quote - Benjamin,
W., A short history of photography, SCREEN, Spring 1972
4 Richon, O., I Can't Explain it
all Myself -- Conference. Held at the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield. 21st
March 1997. Accompanying the conference is the Virtue and Vice catalogue
containing the essays Allegorical Impulses by Rosemary Betterton (Jan.
'97) and The aim of allegory by Mirelle Thijsen (Jan. '97).
5 Fletcher, A. ALLEGORY The Theory
of a Symbolic Mode. Cornell University Press. Ithaca, New York, 1967
(6) Wiertz, A., Quote - Benjamin,
W., A short history of photography, SCREEN, Spring 1972.
(7) Warner, M., Monuments &
Maidens, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1985, p 331.
(8) Owens, C., The Allegorical Impulse,
October 12, 13, MIT Press 1980.
(9) Eagleton, T., Walter Benjamin:
Or, Towards a Revolutionary Criticism, Verso, 1981, p 6
back to top
When we were
two little boys
"There were two young men with no
heart and no peace
They thought to be free lying under
And so they lay there from dawn
Enjoying the air and the chickens
They thought to be nice and wave
with their hands
And so day after day they are under
Counting the leaves and waiting
They are as happy as can be."
This dreadful poem, 'Normal Boredom',
appeared in 1971 as one of eight signed booklets mailed out by Gilbert
& George. A scratchy pen and ink drawing on the cover typically showed
the two besuited gentlemen sitting on a wooden farm gate gazing across
a meadow, or Gilbert stooping to examine a plant. Gilbert & George's
appearance in their work as singing or dancing sculpture, in film or photographs
is more significant than mere performance. Within the characters they affect,
a simple ride on the London Underground becomes a sweet little work of
art. It is important not only that they are two, but also that they are
male and middle-class, cultivating the effect of refined outsiders.
The early Gilbert & George bring
to mind Bouvard and Pécuchet, Flaubert's pair of 19th century Parisian
copyclerks who yearn for a pastoral retirement. The bachelors meet sitting
in a park bench one hot day. At first sight they experience an electric
attraction to one another and become inseparable, held together by 'secret
fibres'. They are both tired of the capital and when Bouvard inherits a
small fortune they determine to realise their dreams, acquiring a farm
in rural Normandy. Despite amassing a fine library on agricultural techniques,
in practice the bookish fellows' attempts at farming are predictably dismal.
Their ensuing failures proceed through the pastimes of garden architecture,
chemistry, physiology, anatomy, geology and archaeology, all the while
collecting a private museum of incongruous equipment and books pertaining
to their latest whim. They end up with what amounts to a banal assortment
of bric-a-brac and eventually revert to copying.
Bouvard and Pécuchet is a
favourite tale for postmodern museum critiques, living as they do at the
moment of classification. The enthusiastic amateurs have for instance been
invoked in the discussion of Mark Dion's ecological investigations sited
in natural history museums. The importance of the moral in relation to
the collection since Foucault's 'The Order of Things' has been well covered,
suffice to say that there is no 'natural' given in the way we classify
nature or the disciplines that study it. 'Nature' is arbitrary and culturally
This shocking truth makes the wilderness
seem a far more scary place, and Flaubert appears to loom as a 19th century
existentialist prima donna. I'm thinking of Bouvard and Pécuchet
as precedents for Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon in 'Waiting for Godot'.
Picture Gilbert & George in the poem gazing across the water or over
a field. What are they looking for? Art? It may be more fruitful to turn
to the shared identity of the figures rather than their collection. Without
trying to force a direct equivalence, is it possible to use Flaubert's
gents to identify a formulation for Gilbert & George in their work?
The ambiguous sexuality of Flaubert's
characterisations seems intractable, whilst not quite naive they present
an air of bewilderment about the whole question. The two French companions
are both 60 when Pécuchet loses his virginity to their maid, contracting
an embarrassing 'intimate disease'. Meanwhile Bouvard's clandestine marriage
to a local wealthy widow is abruptly called off when it emerges that she
was only after a part of his land. Following their bad heterosexual experiences,
the gentlemen resolve to have nothing more to do with women: 'No more women,
right? And they embraced each other tenderly.'
We know Bouvard and Pécuchet
love to collect. From Walter Benjamin, a self-confessed collector, we get
the suggestion of a relationship between collecting and libidinous desire.
So it is that in his short essay, 'Unpacking my library,' Benjamin refers
to children and old men as collectors, the more sexually active social
groups apparently having less interest in the pleasures of collecting.
Sammeltreib, the primal collecting urge, attempts to reclaim the old world.
The object must be released from its function, taken out of the bondage
of use, reborn in the private collection. The whole business is intense
and obsessive, as Benjamin recalls:
"...one of the finest memories of
the collector is the moment when he rescued a book to which he might never
have given a thought, much less a wishful look, because he found it lonely
and abandoned on the market place and bought it to give it its freedom
- the way the prince bought a beautiful slave girl in The Arabian Nights.
To a book collector, you see, the true freedom of all books is somewhere
on his shelves."
Gilbert & George, who understand
the underlying melancholic existence of Bouvard and Pécuchet, have
a collection of their own. In the recent 'South Bank Show' film they revealed
their collection of ceramics, including 1880s Branham Ware and unremarkable
Torquay Terra-cotta. For them too, the act of collecting is above 'the
"Gilbert: That's how we started
to collect because once we are collecting, we are able to relax immediately.
We don't even mind what we are collecting, only this movement was very
cheap and very neglected so we started to collect this. We could collect
anything, children's books, the magazines that George was collecting...
George: Yes the possibilities are...
Like many couples they finish each
others sentences. Gilbert and George share with Bouvard and Pécuchet
the curious combination of their liking for measured consistencies in life,
never quite (or only just) countering a sentiment for being completely
lost. Bouvard and Pécuchet, unlike Vladimir and Estragon, or Don
Quixote and Sancho Panza, are equally matched, broadly concurring on all
essential issues. Like Vladimir and Estragon, they could be understood
as two sides of the same personality. As I mused over the question of these
sensitive twosomes, I wondered if we could regard their melancholia as,
in some way, a gendered space. This may seem an awkwardly framed idea.
What I mean to suggest is that the wistfulness they express, and the viewer
experiences, is a product of their identity. If melancholia is in part
a manifestation of, for instance gender or class, it is because it is also
directly figured through the desire of those identity co-ordinates. Where
the word in identity politics would be 'desire', I could read 'yearning',
or as I have shown, the sammeltrieb of the collector. So while their melancholia
is of course not exclusive to the male pair, it is specific to them. Their
desire can be exhibited not only in the collection but also in their alienation.
In fact it is not enough to imagine the possibility of a female Bouvard
and Pécuchet as mapping another specific set of desires. The point,
aside from Bouvard and Pécuchet's relationship with each other,
is their relationship with society. Women, particularly in the mid-nineteenth
century, were not able to move freely within social structures in the same
way as men. They are not accorded the right to stare at the crowd and to
remain inconspicuous. Furthermore, a female countertype of the collector
is far from established.
As clerks, Bouvard and Pécuchet
played a crucial stabilising role in the fabric of Parisian society. As
amateur enthusiasts, their social contact with the outside world is as
limited as the objects in their private collection. They are further put
off by rare occasions such as the party to show off their garden which
left the guests singularly unimpressed and ended in a terrible argument.
As with their sexual exploits, Bouvard and Pécuchet's reserve in
their relations with the small rural community is compounded by these incidents.
The small local village of the Chavignolles
provides a caricature of the fabric of society; a doctor, an aristocrat,
an ex-politician, a tradesman, a lawyer, a priest and farm workers. Gilbert
& George's immediate community, around Spitalfields provides the backdrop
for much of their work. However it is always viewed with professional detachment.
Being alone can be so much more effective if there are two of you. The
more they are removed from it, the more Gilbert & George can view society
in the way they compile their collection. We might fashion a kind of crude
correlation between class and classification. Finally we the viewers, their
public, find ourselves in their line of sight, we are implicated in the
mass they survey from a lofty position. Like four observatories, their
eyes zoom into the middle-distance of the crowd.
Gilbert & George have, as they
say, 'held on to each other' since their early days at St. Martin's and
are now approaching the Autumn of their years, an age that suits them.
In some of their latest work they have begun an ongoing collection and
documentation of their own bodily fluids. For 'A huge new group of pictures,'
photographing samples through a microscope: shit, piss, tears, sweat and
sperm. They have, George speculates, 'probably one of the biggest visual
studies of shits ever made - we have thousands and thousands of different
ones.' This takes collecting to new gratuitous limits.
We might refer to the unwavering
recording video eye of another double act, the Swiss artists Fischli &
Weiss. Accumulating video footage whilst going for a drive, sometimes to
and from their studio, sometimes with no particular destination, or on
a train somewhere around Zurich, Fischli & Weiss tried to present their
unremarkable experiences in real time. Eighty hours of film with the uninflected
quality of the readymade: cheese making, cleaning the city sewage system,
at the dentist, amount to an encyclopaedic comprehensiveness but have no
explanation. Ultimately they find copying is the only answer, the conclusion
of Bouvard and Pécuchet:
"They copy papers haphazardly, everything
they find, tobacco pouches, old newspapers, posters, torn books etc (real
items and their imitations. Typical of each category).
Then, they feel the need for a taxonomy.
They make tables, antithetical oppositions such as 'crimes of the kings
and crimes of the people' - blessings of religion, crimes of religion.
Beauties of history, etc; sometimes, however, they have real problems putting
each thing in its proper place and suffer great anxieties about it.
- Onward! Enough speculation! Keep
on copying! The page must be filled. Everything is equal, the good and
the evil. The farcical and the sublime - the beautiful and the ugly - the
insignificant and the typical, they all become an exaltation of the statistical.
There are nothing but facts - and phenomena.
back to top
As The Scottish Arts Council (SAC)
Visual Arts Department appoints Sue Daniels, former director at Oriel Mostyn,
as the new Head of Department, following on from Andrew Nairne's resignation
of the post and his installation as Director at the new Dundee arts centre,
the department is holding consultative exercises on its proposed Support
for Individual Visual Artists: Draft Action Plan. The Draft Action Plan
and supporting material addresses what the SAC Visual Arts department feel
are the "...key issues facing visual artists in Scotland". The responses
to the document, through a consultative system, are intended to inform
future SAC policy decisions on provision for artists. I suggest further,
that through conscious reflection, it could also aid in the development
of the SAC's own operating structures. In all, there are four such consultative
meetings taking place throughout Scotland in Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dumfries,
Having participated as facilitator
in the Glasgow meeting, I am left questioning the informative role these
exercises have. Not just in the scope of the exercises themselves (the
actual consultative structure; the problems of the representation of a
broader community by a limited number of individuals; only one afternoon
to discuss the breadth of issues facing the plethora of artistic communities
in the Central Belt; the scarcity of such events as ongoing exercises of
communication) but in the actual SAC receiving structure, how this information
is potentially fed back into the SAC and acted upon by individual Officers,
and what effects it has on the SAC's own mechanisms of working. There is
a feeling that such consultative exercises simply fulfil the role of making
visible, and thereby proving, in a limited way if not only for the SAC's
own reference, the existence of a benign, democratic organisation, the
worry of participants being, they are taken through the motions to a pre-ordained
conclusion. The histories of previous exercises inform this sentiment.
To grasp a positive element from the proceedings, I welcome my opportunity
to play witness to and participate in the event and, being engaged in drawing
up the consultative group, invite others to participate who might not have
had the occasion otherwise. It was an opportunity to become privy to explanations
possibly not so forthcoming in the otherwise everyday circumstances of
the running of the Department. In view of this, the SAC Visual Arts Department's
openness and approachfulness has to be challenged, as should the present
limited client representative consultation structure, in the expectation
that other ways of representing and supporting a multiplicity of practices
can be explored in an ongoing exchange of ideas. Within the meeting I attempted
to raise the issues of what the present and future roles of the SAC are
considered to be, outside of any one departments' manoeuvering within its
prescribed, narrow categorisation, in relation to the Governments reduced
capita for Public Sector Funding (PSF) of the arts, the Lottery and the
encouragement for arts organisations to attain private sector funding.
The Support for Individual Visual
Artists: Draft Action Plan converses in the language of capital economy.
The whole tone of the document is the recommendation of the twinning of
private capital with public subsidy. This comes with the now inevitable
continuation of an inherited Conservative Government funding policy of
encouraged private investment in the arts with the continual erosion of
Public Sector Funding (PSF). To receive Lottery funding (the replacement
system for PSF by any other name) relies on the applying organisation finding
a discretionary percentage of funding from 'other sources'. Forget previous
Lottery promises this is, after all, New Labour with new promises. Camelot,
the company who presently run the Lottery for the Government, hold the
commercial reins until 2001, when its franchise is to be reviewed. In the
meantime, the Government is making loud noises in public on the changes
it intends to style from the present commercial set-up to a non-profit
making system come 2002. Against the backdrop of years of Tory cuts; two
years of frozen Government funding to the Scottish Office for the SAC to
come (under Labour's committed spending promises) and its replacement system,
Lottery funding, to decrease with Labour's alternative spending plans for
the money raised by the Wednesday Draw (more justifiably using the money
for Education and Welfare), what was on offer at the consultation was a
discussion on the prioritising of artists' needs. Ultimately this was how
to cut what can only be a diminishing cake in response to the artists'
practices the SAC wish to, and feel they can, support. In the light of
this continuing funding crisis, the SAC expressed the desire to redirect
funding away from administration within the visual arts to individual artists
as one possible solution.
Amongst other things suggested,
this could take the form of: moving funds around to make more money available
for individual SAC artists' project grants; organisations/ galleries creating
more fellowships and residencies in association with the SAC; the SAC insisting
that revenue funded clients implement Exhibition Payment Rights (EPR -
a fee for artists showing their work over and above the costs of the exhibition,
hanging, invites, catalogue, etc.). It is suggested that such recommendations
would be achieved at different rates, from easily achievable to long term
goals. The merit of these recommendations have to be assessed both individually
and in relation to their overall effect. Initially, however, what needs
to be looked at is how the very document actually came about, the time
scales, applicability and relevance of the SAC research and development
exercises that went into creating the suggested solutions. There is no
point in developing and consulting on policy that is potentially outmoded
even at such a draft stage, never mind in five years time. To take Exhibition
payment Rights as one example. The SAC endorsed the National Artists Association
(NAA) Code of Practice document in 1995, which includes the implementation
of EPR, and participated in the original research exercises in association
with the NAA. While the research and resulting documents have allowed the
NAA to campaign for EPR from a relatively persuasive position, EPR as SAC
policy looks none the closer. While a few galleries in Scotland presently
manage to pay EPR, e.g. Street Level Gallery, The Collective Gallery, through
their individual commitment to the scheme and financial balancing acts,
the scheme was developed in relation to a specific way of working and is
biased towards the one or two person gallery show. In the light of contemporary
practice the EPR scheme needs overhauling to be more inclusive of other
ways of working. The principle of EPR is otherwise compromised through
its hierarchical payment structure, defined against the backdrop of the
commercial gallery system and applicable to only a few. Projects which
often show groups of emerging artists in alternative spaces in relatively
short sporadic intervals, would not be able to give their participants
equivalent support under the present recommended EPR scheme. In the eventuality
of EPR being implemented (that is, not just in SAC revenue funded spaces
but across a wide range of practices which engage with a range of publics),
it could potentially allow for a greater number of organisations to make
their own 'qualitative' judgements and endorsements. That is not to say
that those funded by the SAC would not still feel the effects exerted by
the SAC's own 'qualitative' tastes, which encompasses overtly bureaucratic
assessment procedures where validation means conformation to specific forms
within pigeonholes that fit present departmental remits or the current
round of concerns, e.g. 'education and interpretation'. Some of the suggestions
within the Strategy Document do potentially increase financial support
from the SAC for a greater number of individual practitioners which is
a constructive action, but that is not to say that this will not in some
way affect provision for the facilities for the making of work, as production
facilities are potentially described as administration and where extra
funds will be sought from.
In the meeting, participants spoke
primarily from an individual geographic and personal basis. In itself this
is not necessarily negative provided the consultative structure allows
for frequent and broad community representation. However, it did prove
problematic for a discussion on the wider National implications of moving
funding to artists away from administration, visualising where these changes
would take place and who they would have most impact upon. While I understand
this was not the intention of this specific consultative exercise, these
broader concerns have wide reaching implications for the production of
work and ultimately influence any SAC funding policy decisions made. Perhaps
other reasons why a broader discussion of the general picture didn't emerge
are because of the differences and complexities of the cultural scenes
within Scotland; the specific focus and concerns of any one individual/
group present and, paramount, the internal competition for limited funds.
The effect of such competition is manifest throughout the visual arts,
no more so as in the education industry, as witnessed at a recent opening
of an exhibition in Glasgow. An Art School head of department was giving
an opening speech and, unable or unwilling to talk about the work on show,
followed close on the heels of the Conservative's election tactics of negative
campaigning by 'bringing into disrepute' the workings of another department.
I far from expect ideological homogeneity in the arts, arts education,
art magazines, critical journals, etc. but such petty bickering is self-defeating.
I wonder how much Tory divide and conquer policy has been absorbed over
the years and how much it ever needed encouraging. This myopic scrabble
for funding and academic accreditation inevitably impacts upon the potential
for any intelligent debate and discussion.
Over and above the SAC's grand plan
for Centres of Excellence (designating specific regional areas in Scotland
with quality provision for a specific artistic medium), which was not discussed
at any length at the meeting, we have to understand how individual artists
and organisations manage to survive and produce work in the present funding
climate, what the nature of those organisations are, their historic development,
and what support they also provide for a broad range of practices. Artist
Run Spaces may well be a sweeping term but most employ artists in some
capacity, however underpaid for their work. Overall, the contemporary gallery
structure employs artists in a variety of positions, both paid and voluntary.
One trend which has a strong emphasis in the Strategy document is the employing
of trainees in arts organisations. This emphasis on training, however differently
structured, is discussed in an anonymous letter in the Spring 97 issue
of Circa magazine, Dole Fraud and the Arts. It states: "Firstly, and paradoxically,
practically all full-time positions within the arts are filled temporarily
by trainees. This has been the only way that theatres, art centres etc.
have managed to function, but the result is that there are no jobs - they
are all filled by trainees." Out of financial necessity many arts organisations
employ voluntary staff. This has taken on a new dimension at Glasgow's
Museum of Modern Art, where the voluntary Gallery Guides are asked to become
Friends of the Gallery, for a 'standard' fee of £15, before being
allowed the privileged task of instructing the public on the art within
the building. I don't think its too much to claim that such schemes can,
in the present economic climate, produce and add to an environment of structural
unemployment, especially when looked at in the light of the recent staff
redundancies at Glasgow Museums.
The close relative to training within
the document is the SAC's now familiar mouth foaming zeal for professionalism.
Professionalism here is seen to be the art of contractually liaising with
business; in having contractual relationships the artist is believed to
be somehow empowered, in control of their own destiny. While this gets
away from the view of the artist-as-victim, it doesn't explain the actual
power relations at play in the field of cultural production and the direct
influences of corporate sponsorship. Business sponsorship of the arts is
described in Culture as Commodity; The Economics of the Arts and Built
Heritage in the UK, Bernard Casey, Rachael Dunlop, Sara Selwood: "Businesses
sponsoring the arts normally expect certain benefits in return. These include
promotion and advertising opportunities, such as entertaining clients and
VIPs, access to specific markets, the enhancement of their corporate image
by association with a prestigious event, and the possibility of boosting
staff morale by providing free or discounted tickets. Sponsorship is generally
regarded as part of a company's promotional expenditure and is normally
allowable for tax purposes." An Art School's student handout on writing
company sponsorship applications describes What Companies May Want Out
of a Sponsorship as, "an event which is high profile, media worthy and
reflects corporate values...; a deal capable of future exploitation." [writers
emphasis]. So it's hardly worth writing to Shell asking it to support artists'
works on human rights violations in Nigeria, or is it? As Chomsky asserts,
democracies, while far from being democratic, actively and visibly encourage
and tolerate open dissent/ criticism, as do multinational corporations.
While private businesses benefit from a direct correlation between themselves
and the apparent freedom of the arts, reciprocally the perpetuated myth
of the 'free-market' is also used to naturalise the administered hierarchy
within the arts market. Through business education at college level and
training thereafter it is believed 'professionalism' will be achieved.
This linear model of practice is the result of a 'traditionalist' model
of art history and the attempt to lay a specific capital economy grid over
the breadth of contemporary art practice. It's not by chance that it also
reflects the Conservative vocational educational policies of the 80s and
90s. (In London, the art department of Camberwell was closed and Central
and St. Martins were amalgamated, a more up to date euphemism would be
down-sized, by Government decisions taken in the late 80s because they
couldn't justify their existence vocationally. In reality these acts were
symptomatic of the Government's paranoid projection and attempts at the
destruction of the left within public institutions.)
The SAC's Visual Arts Department's
apparent desire for administration cuts also conflicts with the present
private managerial system that is developing, that of devolved/ private
Lottery facilitating companies and the SAC's own policy study into an independent/
private arts education body (a private body to administer artists working
within education). As more funding facilitating organisations appear to
negotiate on organisations' behalves the contradiction of the SAC's will
to shift funding from administration to artists changes from a mere rip
to a gaping chasm in realistic policy possibilities, despite the conviction
of some SAC Officers and Committee members, as it flies in the face of
the effects of Government Arts policy. But, administration is a broad encompassing
term, the actuality is that certain forms of administrative structures
are being encouraged over and above others. Presented within the document
is financial encouragement from the SAC to be given to individuals/ groups
for setting up private dealer organisations, an administrative body.
I believe the SAC put forward a
Darwinistic notion of artistic practice, a system of natural competition
and selection that 'sorts the men from the boys'. The SAC present an idealist
representation of the creator as a pure isolated subject and the SAC as
being in a position of disinterestedness, mere observers removed from the
fray. In the introduction to Pierre Bourdieu's The Field of Cultural Production
Randal Johnson writes: "We would be naive to assume that it [the structure
of authority in the field of cultural production] is innocent or disinterested.
As Bordieu writes '...Every critical affirmation contains, on the one hand,
a recognition of the value of the work which occasions it...and on the
other hand an affirmation of its own legitimacy. All critics declare not
only their judgements of the work but also their claim to the right to
talk about it and judge it. In short, they take part in a struggle for
the monopoly of legitimate discourse about the work of art, and consequently
in the production of the value of the work of art.' There is, as Bourdieu
has said, an interest in disinterestedness." What is camouflaged is the
actual regulation of the manufacturing as well as dissemination of cultural
production by the SAC. The mechanisms of 'qualitative' judgement is the
belief system that sustains this apparent natural system of the selection
and promotion of artists. Part of the notion of professionalism contains
this naturalised, unspoken concept of quality and value, which is disseminated
throughout the art world.
The SAC operates in a reactive capacity,
it is familiar with and able to validate that which is already sanctioned
and confirms/ accumulates that accreditation. Through such a methodology
it cannot, or is unwilling to in its present incarnation, support innovation
and experimentation as it contradicts its system of judgement. The SAC
must therefore develop its own supportive and communicative structures
in response to contemporary artistic practices if it is to truly advance
its provision for artists. One suggestion in the Support for Individual
Visual Artists: Draft Action Plan is that a bursary be given to an existing,
unstated UK/ International arts magazine, I presume based in London as
it is the concentrated market centre, to support Scottish writing on Art.
While its heartening to eventually see a glimmer of encouragement for critical
writing, if that is what is sought, running to the familiar and sanctioned
within London is still a poor substitute for the development of independent
activity within Scotland.
back to top
The scum also
"...Everyone is led to think that
what he knows represents a local exception. But the overall pattern remains
hidden. Information is often given in the local papers, but its general
significance, the patterns on the national level, remain obscured.
...What you face here is a very
effective kind of ideological control, because one can remain under the
impression that censorship does not exist, and in a narrow technical sense
that is correct. You will not be imprisoned if you discover the facts,
not even if you proclaim them wherever you can. But the results remain
the same as if there were real censorship. Social reality is generally
concealed by the intelligensia."
Noam Chomsky "Language & Responsibility"
Tourists who wandered through George
Square one day last March, would have been a bit confused with the entertainment
lined up for them. Some 400 or so police had gathered around and inside
the Glasgow City Chambers building, while a large wooden façade
told everyone that it was now 1997, 'The Year of Sport'. Was this to be
a White Helmets display team performance, with 50 or 60 police on one bike,
jumping through flaming hoops? Apparently the police had turned out because
they had been told that their fellow council employees (and of course huge
bands of travelling anarchists and subversives) were planning to turn up
in search of some local democracy. Earlier in the day some demonstrators
did turn up, saw the police and went away. The police, standing about doing
nothing, stayed on till early evening.
A few days before it had been a
different story. According to the Herald (11/3/97) Councillors, on their
way to a budget meeting, were attacked by a picket line waiting for them.
According to one Councillor, Christopher Mason: "That was a mob. Apparently
members were kicked, spat on, abused. It's a cancer eating into democracy
if mobs can roam the streets harassing and bullying people. If that's the
debate, then I'm on the side of law and order on saying elected assemblies
must be allowed to meet to do their business. If you don't like what they
do, then vote for somebody else next time." He used to be a Liberal Democrat:
it's difficult to say what he is now. Other Councillors complained that
the police had: "failed in an abysmal way to control the situation ...It
was astonishing that no-one was arrested at the City Chambers." The Herald
states with no attribution (just as fact) that apparently Fire-fighters,
who were summoned by a fire alarm "were subjected to abuse by the picket
line." A line we've all heard before. Our Lord Provost, Pat Lally has sent
a letter to the Chief Constable, expressing "extreme disappointment" with
the police; hence the massive but purely symbolic turn-out a few days later.
The police, for their part, state in the same report that they had "no
instructions other than to keep order in the streets." It looks like even
the police have abandoned the Councillors. It also looks like there will
be an inquiry into the matter. Yes it is the Year of Sport all right.
The workers and their supporters
had formed the picket line to try to stop the Councillors from setting
their budget, which they believe will destroy services in the city, cause
1,400 redundancies, put the Council Tax up by 22% and introduce £80.7m
in cuts. The cuts have come every year now in Glasgow since the fateful
year of 1990 when the Council had big ideas for the city. Demonstrators
are getting justifiably bored of the fixed routine of marching from Blythswood
Square to George Square and then home. So, since the Council is their employer
and also run by the Labour Party (the worker's friend), they staged a picket
line designed to shame the worst Councillors into turning back. Their version
of events differs from that offered by the Herald, but before we get to
that there is some backtracking to do.
Glasgow City Council (GCC) and its
Labour majority, despite the experience of the Poll Tax, despite all their
years in power and despite 7 years of cuts, never did get around to organising
for combat against the Conservative Government's attacks on local government.
They just complied, did what they were told and developed a nasty habit
of blaming everyone else when questions were raised, particularly about
poverty. Their advice to the people of Glasgow is to 'blame the government',
but when the people call out for something more - resistance for example
- something dark wells up inside the leaders of the Council, a feeling
of powerlessness perhaps, which compels them to turn on the people, particularly
council employees and the poor, those they can control. The Social Workers,
who are getting sacked, would recognise this as following the classic psychology
of a powerless victim of abuse who becomes an abuser themselves. And it
is child abuse we are talking about here, and in great numbers. The cuts
form an attack principally on children and the weaker sections of the community:
the old, disabled, sick, infirm, addicted, homeless and mentally ill. The
voiceless. And they form an attack on those who care for them. They are
part of a strategy which saw the former government dismantling the welfare
state. The Council's response to all this has been to become professional
advocates of submission to authority, opponents of insubordination and
resistance. Conservatives in other words.
What we've been told for the last
7 years was that they had a big plan for the city. This was an extension
of what a former Lord Provost had started when he purchased a meaningless
yellow logo for the city back in the early 80s. An obscenely expensive
advertising campaign and huge grants to big business formed the basis of
their vague strategy for 'inward investment' and the 'development of the
service industries.' It is a shallow but relentless publicity stunt. The
'cultural agenda' attached to it is even more wayward. The intention here
was that the Council - who confusingly use the word 'Glasgow' or 'The City'
when describing their weird ideas - oversee some kind of transformation
of everyone's image, which they feel is poor. If we all smarten up our
act, Glasgow will become an acceptable holiday destination for businessmen
in search of executive relief. They feel (and this reveals some heinous
disgust for their electorate) that they have a city full of Rab C. Nesbits
and they want him in an Armani suit, just like they have. In Glasgow it
is not the Emperor but the subjects who must pretend to have new clothes.
This intended shaking off of the old 'bad' image of the 'The City' was
always intended to be used on the people of the city, not the Councillors.
The feeling is growing that the old image of the city as a corrupt rotten
Borough (exemplified in the Cantley affair of the mid 70s) is still hanging
in the air; that the gangs stabbing each other in the back, using 'bad
language' and getting drunk and reckless at every available opportunity,
are now the political factions running the city. For example, lets go back
to February when the Council exploded.
At a meeting of the Labour Group
Executive, Mr Bob Gould, our leader, set an interesting example when he
became greatly agitated because nobody was listening to him or taking him
seriously. He is not allowed to chair meetings and feels that the Council
is riddled with factions (gangs), which are undermining him and which were
in existence before, but grew much worse when Strathclyde Regional Council
and the District Council were 'unified'. Gould eventually became so agitated
that he "cracked under pressure" and abandoned a meeting of the full Labour
Group shouting the memorable phrase: "I'm not taking anymore of this crap."
(Herald 7/2/97) He then told everyone he was going to resign--obviously
an idle threat. Then things got worse. The next day, his temper still flaring,
he gave a media interview and appeared "...to indicate that some Councillors
have offered to support him in the forthcoming leadership election in exchange
for foreign trips." Instead of saying 'what's new', because this was the
run-up to the election, the papers ran the story. Admittedly though, these
kind of revelations normally come from the bottom, not the top. It must
have been a good night because the next day Mr Gould phoned in to say he
would be absent because he "had the flu." This is a national euphemism
which needs no explanation. The rest of the Labour group tried to hold
a press conference/damage limitation operation: but no one can fit 20 pounds
of shit into a 10 pound bag. The week ended on a lighter note with Our
Lord Provost, Pat Lally making a routine phone call to see how things were
going. He was on holiday in Grand Canaria (one of the money laundering
capitals of the world). "After establishing he has no reason to alert his
lawyers, he resumed his holiday and has no plans to come home early." (Herald
7/2/97) Apparently there is going to be an inquiry into all this.
It might sound strange, but on analysis
the local media, which is now mostly owned by STV, has been steadfast is
its editorial ignorance of the crisis facing the city. The efforts of the
Herald's more objective(ish) local government correspondents were, in the
months leading up to the general election, overshadowed in emphasis and
frequency by barely disguised drooling over perceived Labour corruption.
But seldom did the paper's management feel sufficiently perturbed by the
funding crisis itself to express any editorial opinion. Indeed, those who
'Don't Miss an Issue' may have noticed that this great bastion of Scottish
journalism was rather more concerned with urging local government and business
to get the city centre tarted up in time for that cultural milestone/millstone
which will see us presented to the world as 'The City of Architecture'
in 1999. The dumbed-down-for-the-plebs version of the Herald, the Evening
Times, was not going to sit back and silently witness the wholesale destruction
of the metropolis it serves, or what's left of it. And so the Save Our
City campaign was launched to a tidal wave of apathy, helped along nicely
by an all-party lucky-bag of headbangers, holding up the launch issue on
the lawn outside the Palace of Westminster. The Save Our City campaign
seems to have ended - if the city has indeed been saved, then perhaps we
should be told.
Of course the cuts are all the fault
of the old Conservative government. On analysis their attitude to local
government was in evidence long ago. The tactics were clear: here is Michael
Forsyth writing back in 1985 in "The Case for the Poll tax" and obviously
trying to put ideas into Margaret Thatcher's vicious mind:
"Central funding of local authorities
by Government would obviously be a practicable and easily administered
option, but it would lead to the destruction of local government as we
know it. The responsibilities of a council would be limited to the determination
of priorities within both a fixed budget and a legal framework that lays
down the standards for most services. A council would become little more
than a kind of multi-purpose government agency."
"Such a system would be a recipe
for the kind of internecine warfare with central government that some health
authorities currently indulge in and that characterises an increasing number
of councils. Councillors would claim that they received insufficient money
from the Government to carry out their responsibilities. They would cut
the most sensitive services to make their point, blaming the Government
as loudly as they could. For its part, central government would inevitably
take a far more active interest in how money was being spent, no doubt
attempting to enforce its views where persuasion failed. The bemused local
voters would find themselves suffering in the middle, unsure who to blame
for the ensuing chaos."
Ring any bells anyone? We begin
to stray into notions of reactionary complicity on the part of the Labour
party with that bit on the "most sensitive services". The best argument
that the Council can muster goes something like this: GCC knows it is being
manipulated and made to look stupid and cruel by Central Government. They
cannot imagine any way out of this. They simply cannot set an illegal budget
- that would be ruinous for the City and bring them into disrepute. Thus
the whole issue boils down to respect for due process of law. It is a legal
issue. While they make the cuts in the most painful of ways, workers are
at perfect liberty to squeal exactly what they are told to squeal.
As to the last sentence from Forsyth,
well, either inadvertently or not the Council's own propaganda sheet "Glasgow"
(April 97) hired a professor, Arthur Midwinter (Dean of the faculty of
Arts and Social Sciences at Strathclyde University) for the purpose of
echoing Forsyth's words. At the end of his screed Professor Arthur tells
us that "Glaswegians can hold neither centrol (sic) nor local government
accountable for the crisis."
Consultancy is something of a boom
industry in these impoverished times. For a grossly inflated price you
can hire 'professionals' to say practically anything. The Scottish Office
spent £250,000 on an 'independent' study into council spending. This
was carried out by Coopers & Lybrand and a company called Pieda. This
said that Councils were "well funded" and was published on 15/2/97. COSLA,
not to be outdone spent some of their meagre budget on an 'independent
study' on the impact of spending controls on local authorities, which said:
"The restriction would result in the loss of 17,000 jobs and £30m
in household income." The people who did the study were just Pieda this
time. Pieda is run by the boss of Scottish Enterprise an organisation designed
somewhat anachronistically to promote 'Thatcherism' in Scotland, which
itself competes with local government, the NHS etc for central government
To return to the theme of reactionary
complicity, we also have the following series of events. Before the Council
turned belly-up, the Parliamentary Labour Party announced some good news
to a Scottish Industry Forum meeting--"In a clear attempt to convince voters
and money markets that he means business"--it was announced by George Robertson
that Labour would be sticking to the Conservative's public spending limits
for the next two years. Limits set to control Councils and tinker with
the welfare state. There would be no extra cash--so we can expect the same
cuts next year and the year after that. That was on the 20th of January
to a bunch of Business people. The Local authorities got wind of it and
were said to be 'seething'. Five days later George Robertson came up with
a brilliant solution: resurrect the Poll Tax. Press reports (Herald 25/1/97)
"George Robertson offered to open
up Britain's tax records to local authorities chasing people who have dodged
the poll tax or council tax payments."
This was to "soften the blow" of
new council budgets and is a tactic even the Tories didn't stoop to. It
met with a "warm response" from the largely Labour dominated Local authority
leaders, the report went on:
"Indeed they have suggested that
an incoming Labour government go further and allow Councils to make deductions
from Social Security payments without having to go to court." Barely concealing
his glee, a spokesman for COSLA, Financial Director, Dave Sneller--is quoted
by the Herald to have stated that:
"He did not think the labour proposals
would be viewed as an infringement of civil liberties or unnecessary...
'There is over £700m owing and we have to get the money somehow.'
He added that enforcement measures, which would involve changing the law,
would be targeted at people who had the money to pay and benefit arrestments
would involve taking small amounts of money over a long period."
So it seems that when it comes to
screwing the poor strict adherence to the law is not such a big deal as
it is when setting a budget or when people protest. The strange thing is
that our Labour-run local authority in Glasgow were handing over their
hard fought 'legal budget' to a Tory government which had about a month
left of its existence. Or maybe they thought that the party wouldn't win,
and we can forgive them for that. It is going to be very tricky next year
when there is no Tory government to blame. But think of all that £700m.
What will they do with it? Spending it on the poor would be an idea which
would unite us all, but of course they have to get it off them first. And
then every penny of it will have to go back to central government, those
are the rules and they know it. This is Councillor Des McNulty, vice chair
of policy and resources, complaining about this and inadvertently revealing
how the economic renaissance is coming along, why businesses should (or
is that shouldn't) come to big booming Glasgow and 'create' some wealth:
"Since April last year Glasgow has
been squeezed by Government Gerrymandering into the smallest territorial
area of the 4 major Scottish cities...Currently, around £210m a year
is collected in Glasgow in the form of non-domestic rates is pooled across
Scotland. After handing its revenues over, the city gets back less than
£160m. In other words, it suffers a net loss of almost £50m.
This is a tax on wealth creation in Glasgow."
There is little talk of changing
the law on that little set-up. It is just simply easier to screw the poor
over a long period of time and cut the services they depend upon. In Glasgow
58% of the city's 81,000 school pupils receive clothing grants, while around
43% receive free school meals. In Drumchapel the figures are 84% and 68%,
in Easterhouse it is 87.2% and 64.3%. We could trot out endless figures
proving the existence of widespread poverty, but the council will continue
to ignore these facts in favour of their higher calling of turning the
city centre into tastelessland, not that many Councillors want to spend
much time in Glasgow themselves when there are free holidays to be had.
The Social and Community workers, the Teachers and drug workers who were
denounced as a violent mob, went on strike because they know that they
cannot hold the meagre fabric of social services together. The Council
feels powerless because they know they do not have the people behind them.
There is no sign of that faith ever returning, not now. When the 'junkets'
enquiry finally gets published in September, 'The City' will be the venue
of another Council initiative: the 67th Congress of the American Society
of Travel Agents. And the inquiry looks bad, it's not the left they are
after, they were dealt with some time ago. The Evening Times of 22/5/97
had this to say:
"Moves being planned include stripping
the Glasgow city party of the right to pick candidates for the 1999 election,
a move which has angered and upset many sitting Councillors...Labour's
purge is unprecedented in Scotland. The only similar action by the party
was against Derek Hatton's Militant Tendency in Liverpool, more than a
decade ago." And then of course we have the Sarwar affair.
Questions of fundamental principle
have disappeared in Glasgow and questions of management prevail. It is
one way for our Councillors to ignore the horror of their grievous mistake.
What they also ignore is that our laws are made for the public good, and,
for the public good they may be suspended. Furthermore the public good
is not to be considered, if it is purchased at the expense of an individual.
Authorities are legitimate if they govern well. Whether they do govern
well those who they govern must decide. These unwritten laws reign supreme
over our municipal law. Or are we wrong as to the basis of democracy. Perhaps
there is no such thing as right. Politics are then an affair of might.
A mere struggle for power.
Calculated barbarities inflicted
on women and children are usually justified by the necessity of striking
terror. Then the only message that needs to be officially declared is that
whatever is is right. What has happened in 'Glasgow's renaissance' is that
our Councillors have forgotten that they are public servants: they seek
to be masters of the public. Their final appeal for justification to be
seen as 'elected representatives' is a brave one given the mockery they
have made of democracy and given the lesser known facts of the 'election
procedure' which takes place in the back rooms of Glasgow's Labour Clubs.
This is an eyewitness account
of the demonstration from an interview with Variant. Although it was offered,
we declined to print the name of the individual.
"The response we got to the official
strike on the 6th of March was unusually high, about 98%, but when we got
to work on the Monday people were unhappy. I walked straight into a Union
meeting and heard about the Council making the Budget decision that morning.
People asked their area management if they could use their flexi-time to
extend their dinner break to attend, it was not intended to be an all-day
thing. The management, in collusion with the Council, banned flexi-time,
no reason was given. The government has to give us permission to go on
strike, several days notice has to be given, so Monday was an unofficial
strike, although Unison did back us.
We went down to the march and heard
the loudspeakers at the balcony. We had been aware that people had occupied
the Chambers over the weekend and we joined the crowd. As councillors turned
up people were trying to engage them in conversation, but they were ducking
and diving, avoiding the people. A chant of "shame on you" started. That's
the first time I realised that the people were getting active, because
the Councillors had fucked off round the corner to get in at another door.
I personally got a hold of John Young, he was with a policeman, a top cop,
and I told him that people wanted him to go home for one day and not pass
the budget. He said: "people like you didn't vote me in." How does he know
what I voted? I said: "Are you a councillor? Do you think people are here
for nothing?" And all he said was: "They never elected me, I'm Conservative
I don't need to answer anything."
It was not a picket line at that
point, just people standing outside the Chambers looking up at the people
inside the building who were asking for help and saying, "we can't let
them do this, are you going to just stand there and watch?" By this time,
about 12, there were lots of people joining in, just people doing their
shopping, kids in prams, just the people of Glasgow. A young boy told us
that the Councillors were going in the side. Somebody suggested covering
the doors, so they'd have to cross a picket line. We knew they needed about
24 to form a quorum, we were getting information from the inside. We were
also told that the if meeting had not started by 2.30 it wouldn't happen
today, that intensified people's efforts, we were then a working party.
Some people started charging at
the picket line. One guy actually grabbed one of the line and put him on
the street, we were attacked about 4 or 5 times (all by guys with suits--business
people trying to get in to make money). Now the police were sound throughout
and told them that that constituted assault. We became very determined:
it was a line of iron because of the numbers. The real motivating thing
was all the council vans and private cars all beeping their horns and doing
circuits of George Square in support. Then it went on the telly and the
numbers increased by about 1,000, you could feel the volume: the telly
never brought a single dissenter out, they were all supporters. We had
two official strikes and the press coverage was as minimal as possible;
we have an unofficial strike and we go live on air - why not for the official
The police were asked to assist
people going into the Chambers on numerous occasions. What I seen was a
brilliant bit of policing by a young officer. A woman was calling us 'left-wing
activists', and 'scum,' basically. The young policeman escorted her over
and asked: "Can this woman get through?" We said: "Nobody is getting through,
not before 2.30." The police said: "You realise it's technically illegal
not to let someone through?" We said, "yes". The boy informed us of the
law "technically," and after this he said: "You realise I'll have to inform
my superior officer? The woman said: "Is that all you're going to do!"
He said: "Other than forcibly removing everyone--which I'm not prepared
to do till I've spoken to my superior officer--that's all I'm going to do."
That's what they're meant to be there for--informing the public.
People waited and the word came
round that the meeting had been held in a side room. It must have been
a short meeting, the decision was clarified by 2.30, there was no way any
announcements were heard and a Tory confirmed that to us, because they
declared it an illegal meeting.
I've never seen so many drooping
heads. But people went round the front The people on the balcony said:
"We tried to stop them and they've just sold us down the river. The police
have said that nobody is going to be charged as long as we give them our
names and addresses." Ten minutes later they started to walk out of the
building. The press took over: 6 or 7 protesters were escorted down to
the cameras as they came out, but they declined an interview or any comment.
Then they started walking down the road with a banner in front of them
and we all fell in behind them and started marching round the square--the
old defiant Scottish thing.
back to top
Freedom of Expression rally
Istanbul, 10?12 March 1997
April 23, 1997
This three-day event was organised
and hosted by the Freedom of Thought initiative, a 200-strong group of
artists and activists. There is a multiple trial in progress in Istanbul;
writers, musicians, actors, journalists, lawyers, trades unionists and
others are being prosecuted by the State Security Court. Twenty-one international
writers attended the rally; most are members of PEN but three travelled
on the invitation of Amnesty International (A.I.), including myself.
More writers are imprisoned in Turkey
than in any other country in the world1
but "the real question (is) not that of freedom for a writer. The real
question is that of the national rights of the Kurds."2
The annexation of Kurdistan, the attempted genocide and continued oppression
of the Kurdish people are three of the major scandals of this century.
Historically, the British State, if not prime mover, has had a pivotal
role.3 At one point 'we'
needed a client-state "to secure ('our') right to exploit the oilfields
of Southern Kurdistan," and so 'we' created a country, gave it a king,
and called it Iraq4.
'Our' active participation in the assault on the Kurdish people continues
to the present where 'we' retain a leading interest in diverse ways, e.g.
client-state of the USA, member of NATO, member of the European Union,
etc. Turkey itself "is now the number two holiday destination for U.K.
holidaymakers thanks to superb weather, great value for money accomodation,
inexpensive eating out and lots to see and do".5
Prisoners are routinely tortured
and beaten in Turkey, sometimes killed. Rape and other sexual violations
occur frequently. In the Kurdish provinces the mass murders, forced dispersals
and other horrors practised by the security forces are documented by a
variety of domestic and international human rights' agencies. People have
been made to eat excrement. From Kurdish villages there are reports of
groups of men having their testicles tied and linked together, the women
then forced to lead them round the streets. There are files held on children
as young as twelve being subject to the vilest treatment. This from a 16-year-old
girl detained not in a Kurdish village but by the police in Istanbul:
They put my head in a bucket until
I almost drowned. They did it again and again... They tied my hands to
a beam and hoisted me up. I was blindfolded. When I was hanging I thought
my arms were breaking. They sexually harassed me and they beat my groin
and belly with fists while I was hanging. When they pulled down on my legs
I lost consciousness. I don't know for how long the hanging lasted... They
threatened that they would rape and kill me. They said I would become paralysed.
The torture lasted for eight days. 6
The young girl was later charged
with being a member of "an illegal organisation". Germany, USA and U.K.
are among those who compete to supply war and torture implements to the
Turkish security forces, who learned about the efficacy of the hanging
process from their Israeli counterparts. A student we were to meet later
at Istanbul University was once detained for twenty-four fours and during
that period she too was tortured.
There exist "152 laws and about
700 paragraphs ...devoted to regulating freedom of opinion". The Turkish
Penal Code "was passed in 1926 ...(and is) based on an adaptation of the
Italian Penal Code ...(Its) most drastic reform was the adoption in 1936
of the anti-communist articles on 'state security' from the code of Mussolini.
Only in April 1991 were some changes made through the passage of the Law
to Combat Terrorism." Before then, and up until 1989
court cases against the print media
had reached a record level with 183 criminal cases against 400 journalists...
at least 23 journalists and editors in jail with one of them receiving
a sentence of 1,086 years, later reduced to 700 on appeal. The editor of
one (well-known journal, banned by the 0zal dictatorship) was prosecuted
13 times and had 56 cases brought against her. She was in hiding at the
time the journal 7 appeared
in July of 1990. 0ne of her sentences amounted to 6 years, 3 months. Despite
international appeals and protests the Turkish government refused to reverse
her sentences. No left-wing or radical journal was safe from arbitrary
arrest, closure or seizure of entire editions. Police persecution extended
into the national press and included daily newspapers. Authors and publishers
of books were victimised. In November 1989 449 books and 25 pamphlets were
burned in Istanbul on the orders of the provincial governor....(and up
until) 1991 189 films were banned...
During the following two years came
the liquidation of journalists,
newspaper sellers, and the personnel of newspaper distributors, as well
as bombing and arson attacks against newspaper kiosks and bookstores...
(In 1992) twelve journalists were murdered by 'unknown assailants' (and)
in most cases, the circumstances point to participation or support by the
state security forces. (In 1994 writers and journalists were sentenced
to) 448 years, 6 months and 25 days... There were 1162 violations of the
press laws (and) a total of 2098 persons were tried, 336 of whom were already
in prison... The security forces interfered with the distribution of press
organs, attacked their offices, and arbitraily detained publishers, editors,
correspondents and newspaper salesmen.8
Shortly before the last Military
coup, in the spring of 1991, I took part in a public meeting organised
by the Friends of Kurdistan.9
I intended publishing a version of my 'talk' in written form but it never
worked out. In the talk I looked at parallels in the linguistic and cultural
suppression of Kurdish and Scottish people, and that was a mistake.10
Parallels between the two may be of some slight functional value from a
Scottish viewpoint but when we discuss the Kurdish situation now and historically
we are discussing the systematic attempt to wipe from the face of the earth
a nation of some 30 million people.
It is doubtful if any form of oppression
exists that has not been carried out on the Kurdish people and I think
the scale of it overwhelmed me. I combined some of the elements of my talk
with those of others of the same period, and published an essay.11
I now give an extract from my notes for the talk, as a brief introduction
to how things were for Kurdish people before the September 12 military
coup back in 1980:12
"The Turkish Republic set up its
apparatus for the repression of the Kurdish people soon after it was founded.
Following the War of Independence, during which they were acclaimed as
'equal partner' and 'sister nation', the Kurdish people found their very
existence was being denied. The authorities have since sought to destroy
everything which might suggest a specific Kurdish identity, erecting an
entire edifice of linguistic and historical psuedo-theories which supposedly
'proved' the Turkishness of the Kurds, and served as justification for
the destruction of that identity.
These theories have become official
doctrine, taught, inculcated and propagated by the schools, the universities,
the barracks, and the media. The authorities banned all unofficial publications
that tried to even discuss the subject. Historical or literary works, even
travellers' tales published in Turkish and other langauges, were all removed
from public and private libraries and for the most part destroyed if they
contained any reference to the Kurdish people, their history or their country.
All attempts to question official ideology were repressed.
It is estimated that 20 million
Kurds dwell in Turkey and the Kurdish language has been banned there since
1925. In 1978, of all Kurdish people over the age of six, 72% could neither
read nor write. The publication of books and magazines in the language
is illegal. The Turkish authorities purged the libraries of any books dealing
with Kurdish history, destroyed monuments and so on. All historical research
into Kurdish society was forbidden. An official history was constructed
to show the Kurdish people were originally Turks. Until 1970 no alternative
research could be published. Thus officially the Kurds are purest Turk.
The Turkish authorities have systematically
changed the names of all Kurdish towns and villages, subsituting Turkish
for Kurdish names. The word 'Kurdistan', so designated from the 13th century,
was the first to be banned; it is regarded as subversive because it implies
the unity of the scattered Kurdish people. Among the literary works I presume
proscribed in Turkey is my 1949 Penguin edition of Xenophon's The Persian
Expedition. In his translation Rex Warner not only refers to 'Kurdestan'
but he refuses to suppress Xenophon's encounters in 400 BC with the 'Kardouçi'.13
Remember that Kurdistan is colonised not by one country but by four, Turkey,
Iran, Iraq and Syria; and Xenophon's account also would have been anathema
to such as the Syrian authorities whose Chief of Police
published a Study (in November 1963
which) set out to 'prove scientifically' that the Kurds 'do not constitute
a nation', that they are 'a people without history or civilization or language
or even definite ethnic origin of their own', that they lived 'from the
civilization and history of other nations and had taken no part in these
civilizations or in the history of these nations.' (He also) proposed a
12-point plan: 1) the transfer and dispersion of the Kurdish people; 2)
depriving the Kurds of any education whatsoever, even in Arabic; 3) a 'famine'
policy, depriving those affected of any employment possibilities; 4) an
extradition policy, turning the survivors of the uprisings in Northern
Kurdistan over to the Turkish Government; 5) divide and rule policy; setting
Kurd against Kurd; 6) a cordon policy along the lines of an earlier plan
to expel the entire Kurdish population from the Turkish border; 7) colonization
policy, the implantation of pure and nationalist Arabs in the Kurdish regions
to see to the dispersal of the Kurds; 8) military divisions to ensure the
dispersion; 9) 'collective forms' set up for the Arab settlers who would
also be armed and trained; 10) a ban on 'anybody ignorant of the Arabic
language exercising the right to vote or stand for office'; 11) sending
Kurds south and Arabs north; 12) 'launching a vast anti-Kurdish campaign
amongst the Arabs'.14
Media organs are the property of
the official language in Turkey, and the Kurdish people are kept starved
of outside news. Kurdish intellectuals are expected to assimilate, to reject
their own culture and language, to become Turkicised. A person from Kurdistan
cannot be appointed to fill a post without the prior approval of the political
police. Kurds are not nominated for jobs in the Kurdish provinces; the
authorities try always to separate them from their own country.
All business is conducted in the
language of state and Kurdish speakers must use interpreters. Literature
produced in exile, beyond the Turkish borders, is not allowed into the
Republic. Kurdish writers and poets have had to write in Turkish, not simply
to ensure publication but because they were unfamiliar with their own forbidden
language and culture. The Turkish novelist Yasar Kemal, whose books are
to be found in just about every library I've ever entered, is actually
A group of Kurdish students once
published a tract demanding that incitement to racial hatred be made a
punishable offence and were charged with having claimed that there was
a Kurdish people, thereby undermining national unity. They published the
tract in response to various anti-Kurd threats made publicly from right-wing
sources, including one nationalist journal implicitly threatening the Kurdish
people with genocide.
For a brief period a group called
the 0rganization of Revolutionary Kurdish Youth (DDKO) was tolerated by
the authorities; this group set out to inform public opinion about the
economic, social and cultural situation; organizing press conferences and
public briefings, publishing posters, leaflets etc., focussing attention
on the repression within Kurdish areas; its monthly ten-page information
bulletin had a print run of 30,000 which was distributed amongst Turkish
political, cultural and trade union circles, as well as in Kurdish towns
and villages. Eventually 'news' about what was happening to the Kurds filtered
through to the media and the public and there were protests against the
repression. Six months before the military coup of March 1970 the leaders
of the Organization were arrested and after it all 'left-wing parties and
organisations were outlawed'.
But from 1975 new youth organizations
formed, known generally as the People's Cultural Associations (HKD), concentrating
on educating their members and helping peasants and workers who were in
conflict with the authorities in one way or another. A policy of terror
and ideological conditioning was implemented by the Ankara Government which
in the words of Turkish sociologist Ismail Besikçi managed to "make
people believe he who announced 'I am Kurdish' was committing a crime so
heinous that he deserved the death penalty". Dr Besikçi was put
on trial for the crime of 'undermining national feelings' and 'making separatist
In the same talk I drew attention
to an interview Ismail Besikçi had given while in prison awaiting
yet another trial. He had remarked of the German prosecution of the Kurdish
Workers' Party (P.K.K.), that the one thing established was the existence
of a "secret agreement between the NATO alliance and Turkey, in relation
to Kurdistan". Germany has now fallen into line with the Turkish State
and has declared the P.K.K. an illegal organisation, even to sport their
colours is a criminal offence. The victimisation of Kurdish people has
spread outwards, it is as though we are witnessing the attempted criminalisation
of the entire diaspora.15
Throughout Europe there are incidents
being reported by monitoring agencies. In November in Belgium "100 police
and members of the special intervention squad ...raided a Kurdish holiday
centre ...The Ministry of Justice claimed (it was) used by the P.K.K. as
a semi-military training camp." Nobody at all was arrested. But forty people
were deported to Germany. 0n February 2 of this year (1997) "the Danish
television station, TV2, revealed that the Danish police intelligence service
(PET) had written a 140 page report on meetings of the Kurdish parliament
in exile which took place in Copenhagen in March 1996 (and the) transcript
...ended up with the Turkish authorities."16
Here in the U.K. Kani Yilmaz is
halfway into his third year in Belmarsh Prison, London. He came from Germany
in 0ctober 1994 at the direct invitation of John Austin Walker M.P., to
meet with British MPs and discuss cease-fire proposals between the P.K.K.
and the Turkish armed forces. In a shameful act of betrayal the British
State responded by arresting him. Germany wants him extradited and Turkey
waits in the wings. Sooner or later they will find a way to sort out 'the
extradition problem', thus the British can hand him back to Germany who
can hand him back to Turkey. 0r else they might just cut out the middle
man, this would be their ideal situation.
Olof Palme of Sweden was assassinated
more than 10 years ago; it so happens he was also the only European leader
who ever confronted the Turkish State at the most fundamental level, by
"recognising the Kurdish people as a nation and (committing) himself to
attaining recognition of their rights."17
It would be comforting for some people to suppose that the British and
other European Governments and state agencies act as they do through sheer
cowardice. Unfortunately I doubt if this is the case.
Clearly the Turkish State has in
place the means of authoritiarian control for which many of our Euro-state
authorities would cut off their left arm. In certain areas they begin to
draw close, for example in matters relating to asylum and immigration,
their punishment of the most vulnerable of people; the beatings, the killings,
the torture that takes place in prisons and police-cells. And not too long
on 14 February 1997, the (British)
government attempted to introduce a private members' bill, the Jurisdiction
[Conspiracy and Incitement] Bill, which would have had the effect of criminalising
support for political violence abroad. It was only defeated when two left
Labour MPs, Dennis Skinner and George Galloway, unexpectedly forced a vote
on the third reading and caught the government unawares, as they were relying
on cross-party support for the Bill.18
In 0ctober 1996 came the Lloyd Report,
published "with very little publicity and only a brief press-release, an
inquiry into counter-terrorist legislation ...set up jointly by Home Secretary
Michael Howard and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Sir Patrick
Mayhew. Such is the terrorist threat," says the report "that not only is
permanent legislation desirable to combat terrorism, but past powers need
to be further widened and strengthened." The expert commissioned by Lord
Lloyd "to provide 'an academic view as to the nature of the terrorist threat'
(was) Professor Paul Wilkinson of St Andrew's University" and his 'view'
provides Volume 11 of the report whose
new definition of 'terrorism' is
modelled on the working definition used by the FBI: 'The use of serious
violence against persons or property, or the threat to use such violence,
to intimidate or coerce a government, the public or any section of the
public, in order to promote political, social or ideological objectives.'19
No later than one month after its
publication, "amid allegations of financial losses" the Mail on Sunday
named the professor as "Terrorist expert in college cash riddle". Then
came the more interesting information, that Professor Wilkinson was 'believed
to work for the British security services and the CIA.' There is one thing
established by the fact that Wilkinson is still commissioned for work as
sensitive as the Lloyd Report, this is the contempt held by the British
State not just towards the public but its elected representatives.
It was something of an open secret
before this and readers of Lobster magazine have known of his pedigree
for at least ten years, in particular his "inept role in the state's attempt
to discredit Colin Wallace in the 1980s."20
This was when "disinformation was run into the Channel 4 News office" by
Wilkinson, two members of the UDA plus "a former colleague of Wallace"
at the Information Policy unit in HQ Northern Ireland.21
Notwithstanding any of that his credibility is undiminished and as I write,22
one of Scotland's two 'quality' newspapers, The Herald, features his 'academic
view' that "to defeat their terrorist tactics, British and Irish security
must target the godfathers of the IRA's crimes" and not give into such
tactics as "bringing a complex transport system to a halt... Any group
of clever dicks in an open society could achieve that..."
The juridical system in Turkey may
be complex but its central purpose seems straightforward enough, it sanctifies
the state and protects it from the people. Following the 1980 coup and
throughout the next decade changes in the law took place, the mechanisms
for the suppression of Kurdish people altered. For the Kurds it became
one nightmare after another. The level of state-sponsored terrorism degenerated
to a point where sometime between 1981 and 1983, in Diyarbakir prison,
forty Kurdish youths were tortured to death for refusing to say "I am a
Turk and therefore happy."23
We have to respect the fact that
it was not until 1984 that the Kurdish Workers Party (P.K.K.) began its
armed struggle. If we do not then we play into the hands of the Turkish
propaganda machine. The new Constitution came into existence in November
of 1982 and an indication of the potential repression is available there,
eg. this from the opening Preamble:
no thought or impulse [may be cherished]
against Turkish national interests, against the existence of Turkey, against
the principle of the indivisibility of the state and its territory, against
the historical and moral values of Turkishness, against nationalism as
defined by Ataturk, against his principles, reforms and civilising efforts
Not only is the possibility of democracy
denied at the outset, it is illegal even to think about something that
might be defined by the Constitution as "against Turkish national interests".
The system is so designed that any Turkish Government, courtesy of the
Constitution, is in thrall to a higher authority: the National Security
Council (i.e. the Military).
Some might argue that 'Turkish-democracy'
is designed solely to suppress the Kurdish population and it would be presumptuous
of me to argue the point, especially with Kurdish people. But if justice
is ever to be achieved by the Kurds in Turkey perhaps it will come about
only through the will of the majority of the people, and the majority is
Turkish. Münir Ceylan, one of the the contributors to Freedom of Expression
in Turkey, also makes the point that
if you analyse the Anti-Terror Law
carefully, it is obvious that (it) is intended to destroy the struggle
for bread, freedom and democracy not just of the Kurdish people but by
our entire working class and working masses."
It seems unquestionable that among
Turks there has been an increase in solidarity with the Kurdish people,
and also a willingness on the part of many to confront one of the world's
most ruthless state-machines. The courage and perseverance of Dr Besikçi
surely have been crucial in this. Next to Abdulla Ocalan, president of
P.K.K., the National Security Council of Turkey appears to regard this
sociologist and writer as its most dangerous enemy, perhaps even more dangerous
than the so-called 'Islamic Threat'. He is not Kurdish, but Turkish. Since
1967 he has been in and out of court and has suffered "arrest, torture,
jail, ceaseless harassment and ostracism".24
Now 57 years of age he has spent nearly fifteen years of his life in prison.
Each time an essay, book or booklet of his is printed he is given a further
term and so far the aggregate stands at more than a 100 years. Under Turkish
law his publisher is prosecuted simultaneously and so far has received
sentences in the region of 14 years. Less than two years ago the two men
"were abused (and) physically assaulted while being conducted from prison
to the court ...(and their) documents ...rendered useless..."25
Obviously there is a distinction
between the people of a country and its ruling authority. The Turkish State
is not representative of the Turkish people and neither is the British
State representative of myself and Moris Farhi from England who was there
in Istanbul on behalf of PEN International Writers-in-Prison Committee.
My invitation to the Freedom for Freedom of Expression rally came from
Amnesty International (U.K.), by way of Scottish PEN. Although not a member
of either body I was glad to accept. There were twenty-one foreign writers
present and each of us would have been conscious of the relationship to
Turkey held by our individual countries: Netherlands, Germany, U.K. and
Sweden supplied two apiece; one each from USA, Mexico, Canada-Quebec, Palestine,
Finland and Russia, while seven came from Israel. The multiple trial of
writers, artists and others which is now in process derives from January
Yasar Kemal was tried in Istanbul's
No.5 State Security Court regarding one of his articles which was published
in Der Spiegel magazine. On the same day, intellectuals gathered outside
the court in support (and) decided to collude in the 'crime' by jointly
appending their names to (that and other) articles and speeches alleged
to be 'criminal'. The "Initiative Against Crimes of Thought" was born (and)
a petition started. Within a short time the signatures of 1080 intellectuals
from various fields had been collected (and they) co-published a volume
of articles entitled Freedom of Expression. Under the Turkish Penal Code
Article 162: Republishing an article which is defined as a crime is a new
crime, and the publisher is to be equally sentenced...26
On 10 March 1995 the 'co-publishers' voluntarily presented themselves before
the State Security Court to face charges of 'seditious criminal activity'.
Thus the state authorities were
challenged at a fundamental level, leaving the Turkish Government "with
the old dilemma: either democratise the law and the Constitution or face
the opposition of Turkish and world democratic opinion, and the stench
of another major scandal".
There is scarce room for bureaucratic
manoeuvering in the Turkish system and if a 'crime' has been committed
there is little option but to prosecute. If not then the Prosecutor himself
is open to prosecution.27
So far the Freedom of Thought initiative has forced the hand of the authorities
to the extent that the State Security Court has had to bring to trial one
hundred and eighty four people. It is known as the 'Kafka Trial' and has
been described as "the most grotesque farce in Turkish legal history".
Even so, the state makes use of its power and "for the accused (it is)
likely to result in twenty months' prison sentences". Some of them are
already in receipt of suspended sentences for earlier 'criminal' thoughts
or statements and their periods of imprisonment will be even longer.
The next step taken by the campaign
organisers was to produce an abbreviated form of Freedom of Expression,
and then invite international authors to sign up as 'co-publishers'. In
principle the repressive nature of the Turkish legal system does not allow
foreigners to escape the net, even on foreign soil. By using a network
based on PEN International Writers-in-Prisons and other human rights' agencies
the campaign's organisers managed to obtain the signatures of 141 writers
as 'co-publishers' of the booklet. But this time the State Security Court
declined to prosecute "on the grounds that (they) would not be able to
bring (the international writers) to Istanbul for trial...because such
an 'offence' does not exist in US or English law".
So the campaign organisers took
it yet another stage further, they invited some of the international writers
to come to Istanbul in person, then present themselves at the State Security
Court. Again using the network of PEN and other human rights' agencies
they asked that invitations be issued on their behalf. In all there were
twenty one of us present; poets, film-makers, novelists and journalists.
Interest in the 'Kafka Trial' has escalated within Turkey; at each public
engagment there was a full-scale media presence.
On Monday morning more than half
of us were in court to witness the trial of an actor, one of the 1080 Turkish
writers, artists and others who signed as "publishing-editors" of the original
Freedom of Thought in Turkey, the collection of writings by authors either
already in prison or due to stand trial. Yasar Kemal has received a 20-month
suspended sentence for his own contribution to the book. But the actor's
trial was postponed until May, presumably when no international observers
will be present. Meantime he continues rehearsing a joint production of
Genet's The Maids and Kafka's In the Penal Colony and hopes to be at liberty
to take part in the performances.
Following the postponement some
of us were due at Bursa Prison; the authorities were allowing us to visit
with Dr Besikçi and his publisher, Ünsal Öztürk.
0thers were scheduled to meet IsIk Yurtçu, a journalist imprisoned
at Adapazara. Then permission was reversed by the authorities, we could
make the journey if we wanted but we would not be allowed to speak to the
prisoners. It was decided we would send a 'symbolic' delegation and a majority
of us volunteered to make the journey, but places were limited to three
and two went to Bursa Prison. Louise Gareau Des-Bois was nominated to visit
Adapazara. She is Vice President of Canada-Quebec PEN and also speaks a
little Turkish; seven years ago the Quebec centre seconded a Kurdish PEN
resolution concerning Dr Besikçi. When she arrived at the prison
the authorities reversed their previous reversal and she was allowed to
talk with IsIk Yurtçu through a fenced area for nearly twenty minutes.
What disturbed her most was the great number of young people behind bars,
some little more than boys.
We were in court for a second occasion
with Moris Farhi who was signing his name to the abbreviated Little Freedom
of Thought. The State Prosecutor dismissed his declaration out-of-hand.
The third time we arrived at the State Security Court a dozen of us were
there on our own behalf. But a heavy contingent of police had been instructed
not to let us enter the gate. The prosecuting authorities were refusing
to accept our statements, not even if we sent them by registered post.
We held a Press Conference outside on the main street and signed our statements
in front of the television cameras. Münir Ceylan was there with us.
He is a former president of the petroleum workers' union and from 1994
served twenty months imprisonment for making statements such as the one
quoted above. Recently he received a further two year sentence and expects
to be returned to prison any day now. His case has been taken up by A.I.,
supported by the Scottish Trades Union Congress. He and others walked with
us to the post office, in front of the television cameras, where we sent
our signed statements by registered mail.
If the authorities continue to refuse
our names alongside those of the Turkish writers and other artists who
have been on trial already then the initiative's organisers will attempt
to have the State Prosecutor charged with having failed "to fulfil the
constitutional commitment to equality of treatment". It is a bold campaign
and puts individuals at personal risk; some have been threatened already,
some have experienced prison, others expect it sooner or later. 0n the
same afternoon we had a public engagement at Istanbul University. A forum
on Freedom of Expression had been organised by students and a few sympathetic
lecturers. About twenty young people came to meet us then escort us to
the campus; four of their friends are serving prison sentences of 8 to
12 years for 'terrorist' activities.28
Every day at Istanbul University
between one and two hundred police are on campus-duty and the students
have their bags searched each time they enter the gate. Along with us on
the bus came Vedat Turkali,29
a famous old writer who spent seven years in prison for political activities
many years ago, and is now domiciled in England (and remains a socialist).
When we arrived we discovered not only had the forum been cancelled by
the Security Forces, they had shut down the actual university. More than
two thousand students had gathered in protest outside the university gates.
We were instructed to link arms and march as a body, flanked by students
on either side, straight to the gates of the university.
Hundreds of police in full riot-gear
were also present. I could not see any tanks although they have been brought
in on other student-protests. When we got to the gates they circled and
sealed us off. Some student-representatives, lecturers and the media were
allowed into the circle with us. The cancelled forum had become the focus
of a mass student demonstration, the underlying concerns being the current
withdrawal of subsidised education and the continued victimisation of the
student population. Some held banners, an act of 'terrorism 'in itself,
and were requested to fold them away, not to provoke the situation.
After negotiations with the Security
Forces it was agreed that an abbreviated Press Conference could take place
with the international writers and that statements might be broadcast to
the students via a loud-hailer. Demonstrations are illegal in Turkey unless
permission has been granted by the Security Forces. Many people have given
up seeking permission; instead they organise a Press Conference and invite
everybody. A female student opened the meeting then Sanar Yurdapatan30
spoke, calling for everyone to stay calm, no blood should be spilled under
any circumstances. Pelin Erda, lawyer of the four imprisoned students,
spoke next (one of her own relatives was raped during a period of detainment).
A dozen or so international writers was present, each of us was introduced,
but the situation was very tense and time restricted; two of us were delegated
to speak, Joanne Leedom-Ackerman (Vice-President International PEN) and
Alexander Tkachenko (President of Russian PEN). Then we had to leave at
once, linking arms and returning quickly the way we had come.
There was no news of any bloodshed
although we did hear that a disturbance and arrests had taken place in
the area of the post office, after we had left the scene earlier in the
day. That evening we attended a reception held for us by the Istanbul Bar
Association. A few lawyers are among those openly expressing their opinions
on the issue of Freedom of Thought. We met Esber Yagmurdereli, lawyer,
writer and playwright, at present "appealing against a 10-month sentence
(for referring) to the Kurdish minority". He is also under suspended sentence
from an earlier case; if he loses the appeal he will face "imprisonment
It was at the same reception we
heard that Ünsal Öztürk, Besikçi's publisher, had
just been released from prison. He came to our last official engagement,
described as "a meeting of writers and artists organised by Turkish PEN,
The Writers' Syndicate of Turkey and the Association of Literarists. However,
there was little opportunity of a meeting as such. Twelve or more people
spoke from the platform during the two hours, including some of the international
writers. For some reason Öztürk was not invited to speak. Nor
for that matter was Vedat Turkali. I mentioned to a member of Turkish PEN
that it might have been worthwhile hearing what Turkali had to say and
was advised that in Turkey there are 'thousands like him', whatever that
I thought it also of interest that
Sanar Yurdatapan was not invited to speak. Yurdatapan and his brother,
his secretary and a translator, were our four main hosts and escorts throughout
the 4 to 5 day visit, ensuring we remained together in the various awkward
situations. He is one of the central organisers of this campaign and has
served a previous term of imprisonment. He also led an international delegation
to probe the notorious Guclukonak massacre of "eleven men travelling in
a minibus". According to official sources they were killed by the PKK,
but the "investigations left little doubt that government security forces
carried out the killings".32
We also met Ünsal Öztürk
socially on the last night, his wife was with him. They sat at our table
for a while, giving information through an interpreter to Soledad Santiago
of Mexico-San Miguel PEN; she hopes to take up his case through the PEN
International Writers-in-Prison Committee, given that Öztürk
is not himself a writer. Like Münir Ceylan and others, Öztürk
is liable to re-arrest at any moment and I found it difficult to avoid
watching his wife who seemed to be doing her best not to watch him too
often and too obviously.
The next morning it was time to
fly home to freedom and democracy. For the flight into Turkey I had been
advised to take nothing that might be construed as political - in particular
'separatist' - propaganda. For the flight to Glasgow via Amsterdam on Thursday
afternoon I was also careful. I did buy three English-language newspapers
from a local vendor. 0ne carried a report on the introduction of torture
in USA prisons; the other had a front-page-lead on the arrival of a new
prison-ship off the south coast of England, which may prove good news for
Turkey's justice minister, who recently complained of
a negative atmosphere about Turkey.
But now we will monitor human rights in Europe. The only thing Europe does
is criticise Turkey. However, from now on we will criticise Europe.33
In a previous essay34
I drew attention to the Statutes of the Human Rights Commission, in particular
Article 18, referring to 'ethnic groups'. I was arguing that the language
itself is exclusive and that the victims are not being empowered: 'we'
may have "a duty to encourage ethnic groups" whose culture is under attack
but not to stand aside and let 'them' fight back in whatever way they deem
necessary. I would much prefer it if 'we' were advised that 'we' have a
duty not to interfere when 'they' (the ethnic groups) try to resist the
oppression. At a public meeting35
I quoted Rajani Desai of the Federation of 0rganisations for Democratic
There are certain basic differences
between human rights, civil liberties and democratic rights. Human rights
is a term best left to refer to what the United Nations has incorporated
in the Charter of Human Rights and to understand the motives within that
Charter. It relates to the notion that certain atrocities should be objected
to on grounds of humanity. But if you actually look at its history and
practice, it has been associated with the determination of the imperialist
countries, or the more advanced countries as they are called, to use the
human rights' issue in order to negotiate better terms, or to impose something
on third world countries or on one of their own members with whom they
may be having some problems. (Civil Liberties) are mentioned in the Constitution
of India which is actually an 80% replica of the British Act of 1935 for
colonial India, which Nehru said at the time was a document for imposing
slavery on the Indian people.... The "fundamental rights" in the Constitution
of India are not available to 95% of the Indian people today...
Genuine 'democratic rights', unlike
civil liberties or human rights, "asserts the rights of the people to struggle
against exploitation or oppression"; the right to defend yourself under
attack, empowerment, self determination. And, as Desai also argues,
the democratic rights' movement
cannot be a movement of intellectuals only. It has to have for its backbone
the working class and the peasantry, employees, women and students - working
If I have a position then it derives
from the significance of the distinction between 'democratic rights' and
'human rights'. I accept the right to resist oppression and that this right
is inviolable. The people of Turkey and/or Kurdistan will resist oppression
in whatever way they see fit. I can have criticisms of the form this resistance
sometimes takes but I am not about to defend a position that can only benefit
Almost nothing of contemporary Turkish
writing is available in translation via ordinary English-language U.K.
or U.S.A. publishing channels. As far as I know, not even Besikçi's
work has managed to find a publisher.37
At the Press Conference organised by Amnesty International (Scotland) and
Scottish PEN on the morning after my return, the one and only journalist
present at the venue was a slightly embarrassed young man from List Magazine.38
A couple of weeks before my visit to Istanbul The Scotsman newspaper had
included the following snippet in a rare U.K. report on Turkish domestic
Turkey's armed forces have intervened
three times in the past 37 years to restore law and order in the country
and to safeguard its secular nature.
1 Current report from PEN International
2 Dr Ismail Besikçi's KURDISTAN
& TURKISH COLONIALISM; Selected Writings
3 With France and Iran (Persia),
the USA stayed somewhat in the background
4 Ismet Sheriff Vanly's "Kurdistan
in Iraq", collected in PEOPLE WITHOUT A COUNTRY: the Kurds and Kurdistan,
edited by Gerard Chaliand (Zed Books 1980)
5 Evening Times, Glasgow, 21 April
1997, encouraging its readership to "fly to Turkey this autumn".
6 Amnesty International report
7 Voice of Kurdistan, where this
information is taken
8 The Kurds and Kurdistan: THINKING
IS A CRIME, a report on Freedom of Expression in Turkey, published by The
International Association for Human Rights in Kurdistan (IMK E.V.).
9 At Edinburgh University
10 In mitigation, I had prepared
for an audience I assumed would consist almost exclusively of Scottish
people, but more--roughly half--were Kurdish exiles.
11 Oppression and Solidarity, in
the collection SOME RECENT ATTACKS (A.K. Press, Edinburgh 1992)
12 Except where stated, and with
apologies to Kendal, all information is lifted (and lifted directly) from
a collection of essays published by Zed Press in 1979, reprinted a year
later after the fall of the Shah of Iran, with an extra section: PEOPLE
WITHOUT A COUNTRY: the Kurds and Kurdistan, edited by Gerard Chaliand;
Kendal's essay is entitled "Kurdistan in Turkey"
13 He spells this 'Carduchi'
14 See 5, the essay by Nazdar, "The
Kurds in Syria".
15 For evidence of this read almost
any issue of Statewatch journal "...monitoring the state and civil liberties
in the UK and Europe" (take out a subscription, c/o PO Box 1516, London
N16 0EW). A public meeting was held earlier this year in London on the
issue of "the Criminalisation of the Kurds in U.K. and Europe".
16 Information from Statewatch vol
6, number 6
17 PSK Bulletin, number 6, for information
on the South African/Turkish connection
18 Statewatch vol 7 number 1
19 ibid, for an extended discussion
20 Lobster 32; for its comment on
the Mail on Sunday report
21 Linked directly to the British
security services (MI6 in the early 1970s, MI5 after that). See Lobsters
16, 19 for information on Paul Wilkinson and see also Lobsters 10, 14 and
others for a fuller account of the whole murky area. Wilkinson is erstwhile
colleague of far-right 'terrorist experts' such as Brian Crozier and Maurice
Tugwell. Subscribe to Lobster c/o 214 Westbourne Ave., Hull HU5 3JB, U.K.
22 22 April 1997, following the
day of transport stasis in London
23 See Dr Ismail Besikçi's
KURDISTAN & TURKISH COLONIALISM; Selected Writings
25 See 6
26 Press releases by the Freedom
of Thought initiative
27 This is only as I understand
it, as a layperson
28 Which I believe revolves around
unfurling a banner in parliament
29 A pseudonym adopted by the writer
30 Musician/composer, and one of
the leading activists
31 A.I. report Turkey: No security
without human rights.
32 Kurdistan Information Bulletin
no 34, Jan. 1997. Just more than four weeks after the event, on 16th April,
Yurdatapan was detained at Istanbul Airport then held at the Anti-Terror
Branch of police HQ.
34 See 10
35 Organised by Amnesty International
and entitled: "The pen is mightier than the sword"; held in Edinburgh,
April 1995, in support of Taslima Nasrin who was also on the platform
36 Unfortunately I no longer have
this reference but Desai's article, as far as I recall, was published in
Inqilab; the London-based journal of the South Asia Solidarity Group
37 His KURDISTAN & TURKISH COLONIALISM;
Selected Writings is published by the Kurdistan Solidarity Committee and
Kurdistan Information Centre, London
38 A Scottish events and entertainment
back to top
Tales of The
With The Great Unwashed being a free
house, and one of the few remaining, we've been feeling the pinch this
last wee while.
Over a century we've been here,
and a good few bob has passed over the counter down the years, enough at
any rate to raise several families and see them alright. So when things
get pushed as they are now, it's all hands on deck and never say die and
Just around the corner there's yet
another new 'Irish' pub opened, with 'genuine' old posters and chests of
drawers standing in the middle of the floor and old hats and shoes and
bootlaces and you-name-it hanging here and there. Packed it is already
too, and that's it open only a month.
So--bold strategies are called for.
I've pledged to peg the price of a pot of stew for the next year at least,
and I've extended the lunchtime menu from Pie & Beans, Sausage Roll
& Beans, or Bridie & Beans, to include the same things, but with
a twist - now my customers can have any of the aforementioned pastry products
solo i.e. without the beans, for ten pence cheaper, and mighty popular
it is proving. But that surely is the essence of change --assessing the
customer's needs and adapting to them.
And the Karaoke is another invention
which may yet help us see off the interlopers. On Thursdays we get Bobby
Elbow's All-Star-Roadshow in, and a fine range of tunes he has on his big
discs. Most of the regulars enjoy stretching their cables once they've
had a couple, and none more so than Joe 'Doghead' Ryan, who has won the
first prize (a token for a half-bottle of his choice) for the past three
Because Joe has few of his own teeth
left, it is difficult for him to sing without releasing unpleasant raspering
splatteroid noises whenever he reaches for notes of higher type, or attempts
lyrics containing many Esses, but he was advised recently by Bobby Elbow
that by cutting a small banana-shape from a normal beer-mat and winding
it between his remaining choppers, the dentally-challenged delivery can
be much improved.
And so Joe has done this, with great
success. Now he can launch himself into heartfelt renditions of his favoured
Roy Orbison classics with confidence, as I expect he will tonight.
There being a sensation of change
in the air what with elections and all that, I expected that some scintilla
of optimism might be detected in the songs chosen by my loyal and trusty
regulars, but it seems that they don't care too much for it all--whether
it is change they fear, or perhaps just that they don't give a tom-tit
either way, I cannot truly say, but I had hoped there might be more of
a buzz about it all.
Bobby Elbow kicks the night off,
as ever, with a hearty version of We Gotta Get Out of This Place which
is his signature tune and sets a suitably claustrophobic tone, it being
hot and sticky and not a little malodorous what with all the crusty old
souls packed in.
Next up is Sippy Pat from the Wynd,
who never takes her Afghan off and treats us to Bohemian Rhapsody: 'Nobody
loves me!' she caterwauls, and the entire company screams in reply, 'She's
just a poor girl from a poor family!' and she starts crying 'Let me go!'
and we all scream 'No!' and eventually she tears her Afghan open and axe-grinds
her way towards the crescendo with much yipping and ya-hooing from all
present. Joe is already on his feet by the puggy, banging his approval
of Sippy's efforts on the heads and shoulders of those seated before him,
and his enthusiasm duly sparks a small disturbance which I'm forced to
quell with a few short blasts of the fire extinguisher.
But Joe is man enough to replace
those drinks ruined by the dusty spray, and soon we all settle down to
enjoy 'Jarler' Callaghan's outrageous treatment of the obscure Primo Detroit
Ensemble's 1964 top-ten heartbreaker I'm About To Burst, which just gets
better every time.
By half-eleven we're pretty much
as full as we can be, the bar jammed with aspiring chanters demanding request
slips despite cautions that they've little chance of performing tonight.
Bobby Elbow is due his well-earned
mid-session break after belting out Down Down Deeper and Down, but Quo's
most stirring of anthems sets Joe off again, and this time I have to allow
the brawl to take its natural course as I'm too busy with the paying customers.
But then it all goes wrong. A trio
of well-oiled, well dressed punters enter, and with them comes a scent
of trouble. Two men and a woman who look familiar, and have an air of authority
which my regulars sense and recoil from.
The strangers buy White-wine-&-peach
schnapps 'Blinders' (the house speciality), demand a receipt, and have
barely touched the drinks when the smallest of them catches my eye.
'Are you the proprietor sir?' asks
this little fellow, and a sinister type he is too with his baldy red head
and great tufts of white hair sprouting from his ears. I nod, whereupon
he produces a large plastic identity card and holds it up to my face.
'Sergeant O'Lally,' he says then,
'Operation Grumblebust. We have reason to believe that you have been allowing
these premises to be used for the gratuitous encouragement of behaviour
liable to cause gloom and general downheartedness.'
'Well you've had a bum steer,' says
I, and the other chap pipes up then--he's another shifty one, with a straggly
grey beard grown to partially conceal the awful debauchery writ large on
his pasty features.
'Make it easy on yourself,' he says
low and mean, a dangerous smile playing about his thin cruel lips: 'We
know all about it. Patsy Cline stuff, early Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash.'
He pauses, and I see the disgust flick across his face as he whispers,
'Two Little Boys? Do you take us for fools?'
'Who sent you?' I ask, and the woman
shuffles nearer the bar, staring at me through her milk-bottle gazers.
'That's immaterial,' she says, her neck wobbling like a gigantic parson's
nose as she chastises me: 'Everyone knows Elbow's been at it for years.
Cohen, Jim Reeves, the works. You expect us to believe you don't know the
type of filth he peddles, the misery he's caused?'
'Look about you,' says I, and they
all do. I follow their gaze to find that Joe has mounted the stage and
is making final adjustments to the dampened strip of beer-mat which will
act as a temporary upper-set. Bobby Elbow is preparing to launch part-two,
and its a cert it'll be a Big O weepie. I have a mental picture of myself,
suited and shaved, in the dock, being charged with Assisting in the Supply
of Woebegoneness by Means of Musical Media, and have resigned myself to
early-closing when Elbow's tones rise high and loud through The Great Unwashed.
'Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you, thrice champion, the one, the only,
The small baldy fellow pulls a tape-recorder
from his pocket and presses it on, smiling at his cronies. Joe unbuttons
his donkey jacket and spreads his legs, mike cupped in his hands, a washboard
frown developing, his eyebrows twisting into inverted commas of sadness.
And then he erupts into 'I was walking, down the High Street, when I...'
My mind races. It's not Orbison.
It's The Laughing Gnome. God bless you Doghead! The Sergeant flicks off
his recorder and the woman huffily slugs what's left of her Blinder. The
bearded one fires me a look of stinging contempt as he leans across and
snarls: 'Don't think for a minute that this aberrant piece of Bowie whimsy
can get you off the hook.'
But there's method in Joe's madness.
He stays on-stage, defying all others to remove him, and launches into
Kisses for Me as Elbow exhorts the massed regulars to sing along. By the
time Joe gets to the end of Dolce's timeless Shaddapayaface the trio has
clearly had enough.
'Now, have you tried around the
corner?' I ask, and they stare blankly. 'There's those new places. Genuine
Irish pubs they are,' I say, 'and no end of wanton miserableness in there
what with ballads about sailing away to Amerikay and never coming back,
and awful dirges about tatty-howking and banshees chasing folk around.
God bless us and save us and soap us and shave us, it's enough to make
a grown man weep so it is.'
They frown and glance at one another,
then move silently towards the door as the first chords of Agadoo-do-do
bring all to their feet.
Joe has earned his half-bottle tonight
and no mistake. I pour myself a pint and raise a hand in reply to Bobby
Elbow's wink, then join the rest of The Great Unwashed, pushing the pineapple,
shaking the tree.
back to top
Your place or
The following is an edited discussion,
chaired by John Beagles between Martin Vincent, Andrew Brook, Janie Nicoll
and David Wilkinson. All of the participants are artists who have been
involved in organising exhibitions within domestic flats in various parts
of Britain. Martin Vincent is part of the Manchester based duo Annual Programme,
with Nick Crowe, who turned their homes into art galleries to show specially
made work by another artist. Month by month, each artist took a turn at
being host/curator, and then guest/exhibitor, in a form of 'chain exhibition'.
Janie Nicoll, along with Karen Bauld, Marcia Lochhead and Nicola Cooper,
organised 'Pretty Vacant', an exhibition in a 'To Let' tenement flat in
Glasgow. David Wilkinson, along with Beta Veszely and Charles Esche, organised
'Wish you were here too', a large group show of Glasgow based and international
artists, exhibited amongst the flotsam of his everyday living space, also
in Glasgow. Andrew Brook organised and curated 'Smooth Operation', one
of a series of ongoing exhibitions held in his flat in Dundee.
The intention of the discussion
was to examine some of the differing reasons for organising 'flat shows',
their recent popularity, especially in Scotland, and some of the issues
associated with them.
John Beagles: Martin, what
prompted your involvement or interest in putting on a 'flat show'?
Martin Vincent: We were trying
to raise awareness within Manchester of what could be done and to raise
awareness outside of Manchester of what was happening there. It was also
about being artists and living in a particular place. We set up a series
of critical relationships between artists, some of whom did not know each
other when the project started out. It was an investigation of the whole
idea of curating and exhibiting.
David Wilkinson: Part of
my reason for doing 'Wish you were here too' was to look at the way that
as artists you continually involve yourselves with other artists' work,
this was really the idea of the show. Firstly we asked artists if they
would like to show with us, then, as it was impossible to visit everyone,
we asked them to send all the pieces of work to us. We explained what space
was available and exchanged ideas about possible spots for the work; they'd
say they'd like the piece to be by the bed etc. These quite complex relationships
were set up and allowed to exist. We didn't try to control that, and in
the end these relations became what was most interesting.
JB: How do you think your
show 'Pretty Vacant' differed from 'Wish you were here too' Janie?
Janie Nicoll: I think we
felt we were doing it very much off our own backs, with very little time
or money, which is why we simply advertised the event locally with fliers.
The show was on for a relatively short period of time. We kept the space
as it was, as a vacated flat, with all the remnants of previous tenants
that go with that. We were interested in showing in a domestic space as
a lot of the work concerned itself with that environment. The whole thing
was very informal, small scale, with mainly friends turning up.
JB: Andrew what caused you
to organise 'Smooth Operation'?
Andrew Brook: I'd been involved
with the art community in Glasgow, then I went back to Dundee to work.
The difference was striking. Apart from the exhibitions in the college
and the print makers workshop, there's really nothing else, as far as showing
work is concerned. Initially my motives were purely selfish. I wanted to
show my own work, what I was doing in Dundee, and there was no way of doing
it. I carried on in that vein in the sense that I decided I would organise
other people and that I would curate, having control and power, over how
it was shaped. I didn't feel I was tapping into ego mania by dictating
all this, because it was our flat.
JB: In the late 80s, early
90s warehouse shows were the preferred way of attracting the attention
of the 'big boys', now it seems flat shows have replaced them as a way
of flexing curatorial muscles. Do you see the flat show as a strategic
move, as a stepping stone to bigger and better things, or are you interested
in it as more low key, informal way of showing work?
MV: I don't believe you think
about it in those ways, at least not in advance. What we were doing was
just trying to work things through. We'd invite a few good artists, put
on a series of good shows, and just go like that. The only way that it
was a strategy, was that we didn't feel there were any other options. If
we didn't do anything nobody else was going to.
AB: I agree. I never thought
about that until someone turned round and said "Oh you're the curator".
Just because I'd phoned a few people up and asked them if they'd send me
some work, that suddenly made me a curator. Having said that I did advertise
the show in the Guardian and the Observer, and I was aware that the whole
thing could blossom into something else. But with reference to the question
of using the flat show as a stepping stone, I think it's different in Scotland,
because there isn't the market for contemporary art. People don't expect
buyers to turn up.
DW: Warehouse and shop spaces
don't seem interesting anymore, so even from a conceptual point of view
they've been ruled out.
JB: When you were organising
the show, did you decide you were going to try and make the flat look like
a gallery space or did you just place work amongst the other items in the
AB: Well my flat's very basic,
I've not got that much stuff and it kind of looks like a gallery anyway.
Also, I didn't want people rifling through my record collection.
JN: It was a different situation
for us, regarding the work and its context. The flat we consciously chose
wasn't totally empty and obviously had a history to it, a feel about it.
We were interested in our work relating to and working with these elements.
And, while citing the 'domestic', we were still very much aware that it
was framed in an art context.
JB: One of the problems about
doing a show in your flat, is that people not familiar with 'art' are going
to be quite intimidated by visiting someone's flat. I mean it can be bad
enough visiting a private gallery where you make an appointment, but with
a flat it seems worse.
DW: Well I was quite surprised,
I didn't expect a lot of people to come, but I can honestly say a lot did.
I saw a lot of people I'd never clapped eyes on before. Maybe not advertising
it as a flat show helped.
MV: I think that does help.
We didn't advertise any of the shows as flat shows either. Everyone called
their house by a name of their own choosing, my house became the 'Gallery
of the Glorious 22nd February' for example. We thought it would be good
if people in say, New York, might have no idea that the space was any different
from Chisenhale. Also going back to the question about audiences, I think
a lot of initiatives to try and attract new audiences end up being really
patronising, even insulting: suggesting that people are only interested
in entertainment and therefore art has to be presented as such. We didn't
expect people who don't usually attend galleries to come, most of those
who turned up were people we knew, but saying that, if only three people
who don't normally go to galleries did, that's encouraging.
JB: Getting out of the gallery
could also be read as getting away from all the problems of accessibility
associated with showing contemporary art in a publicly funded space. This
seems especially the case in Glasgow, where the pressure to popularise
art has obviously resulted in the kind of tokenistic gestures Glasgow's
Gallery of Modern Art markets and the ill conceived attempts to reach a
wider audience of the "Trust" show at Tramway. Do you think the recent
interest in flat shows has been partly to do with retreating from these
difficulties, and exhibiting to a smaller, known constituency?
DW: Well in some ways you
don't want any of the hassles. Doing the flat show was a way of creating
a space that, as artists, we could direct more freely.
AB: I never thought of applying
for Arts Council or City Council money, mainly because I never thought
the show would need that much. I thought, why do I need to manoeuvre through
bureaucracy to set this up. It would be better if everyone involved just
chipped in, then it could be done more simply.
DW: There's a growing gulf
between artists and administrators these days. The more this kind of bureaucracy
retracts itself and becomes a kind of desk tied facilitator, then the less
contact it has with the art and the artists, so at the end of the day the
left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. The problem is that
projects that might look good on paper might get precedent over other things
which don't read so well, but could be fantastic. There's a problem if
people in these positions don't know what's going on. You've got to have
a working relationship with things to understand them.
JB: That does seem to be
the case. What we've got now is a proposal culture where things which work
well as typed paragraph, as a neat tidy package which can be digested easily
and of necessity quickly, get the cash.
MV: I think we're in danger
of really polarising the funding situation into 'them and us'. There's
a tendency of regarding funding bodies as a homogeneous group, and the
danger of believing that all artists have the same interests and concerns,
when this is not necessarily the case. In any one organisation there are
some individuals that are more sympathetic than others.
JB: No, I'm not interested
in occupying a position of self imposed exile. You can't pretend that you
work completely outside of these bodies.
DW: I mean, if 'they' want
to formulate an effective funding policy 'they' have to know what's going
on, and the only way they are going to do this is by listening, looking
and creating forums where questions and discussion can exist. I don't think
anybody wants to be completely isolated from these people, that's the whole
AB: While I agree that no
one wants to be too insular or separated, I do however like the whole punk
aspect of doing your own shows. It's your thing and no one can dictate
how it goes. You don't have to respect the power of the establishment.
JN: Dave, how do you relate
to that? People have said that your show featured a lot of artists who
are very successful and established and who have plenty of opportunity
DW: Well yeah, there were
people who were well known, but there were also people who weren't that
well known. You have to balance these sort of things out. If it was just
all people who weren't well known there wouldn't have been the same interest,
which is after all what you want. It was funny, we got a request for a
catalogue from the Museum of Modern Art in Sweden and we did actually sell
two pieces of work to the Arts Council of England.
JB: What good has come from
doing this for you, Martin ?
MV: In Manchester it was
a very studio based practice, people making paintings, piling them up against
the wall, and then sending slides off to get shows. People seem less interested
in doing that now, instead what you do is organise a show and make the
work for it. My own practice has changed as much as anything else during
this period. Our shows have contributed towards changing this climate,
we have made a difference, but its not all down to us.
DW: Have you had any reaction
from the establishment in Manchester?
MV: Yeah, they like it. I
think they're impressed. I mean it makes Manchester look like a good place
to be right now.
back to top
Hal Foster Interview
Originally we (Leigh French, Peter
Suchin and Billy Clark) had prepared a formal interview with Hal Foster.
We met him after his lecture at Glasgow School of Art recently, which mainly
focused on the work of Robert Gober, and on his request decided to adopt
a less structured format which would incorporate more of an exchange of
Billy Clark: Your talk struck
me as very aesthetic and psychoanalytical. My expectation was that it would
be a lot more political.
Hal Foster: Yeah. This is
just one talk. What I said was what I thought might be relative to concerns
here. I think that there's interest in the subject: the traumatic. I was
interested in how that might be worked out differently here, but if it
wasn't I thought I might be able to bring a little news. I have a fairly
authentic--which I hope is not to say non-rigorous--take on critical work,
which is that presented with a problem you also have to construct, presented
with an object I have to construct and it's not necessarily given beforehand
how you do it methodologically. I'm also at work on questions to do with
visual culture, questions that are much more institutional, they're much
more political than psychoanalytical. I want to do a series of texts, maybe
a book, on developments in art, also developments that are technological,
very critical of psychoanalysis. I think there's an enormous inflation
of the image and the imaginary with psychoanalysis that abets rather than
Peter Suchin: You mentioned
this in your talk about having 'doubts' about psychoanalysis: you seem
to rely on it quite a lot on The Return of The Real.
HF: Yeah I do, I use it as
a way to think about historical narrative, as a way to re-think avant-garde
temporality, but I don't think I rely on it too much. I take up the concept
as an analogy. I don't feel I work within the psychoanalytical model, I'm
not a Lacanian or a Freudian. I'm not in a church and that's precisely
the difference for me. I take theories as broken tools and you do what
you can with them in relation to what objects you want to work with, it's
not given beforehand.
BC: So one could admire the
scientific rigour of Freud, how he brought that rigour to bear on a certain
subject, but not the whole thing?
HF: Yeah, but the reason
I'm sensitive to your remarks is I think we limit the culture of psychoanalysis.
Even though I think Freud is under massive attack--this is the thing we
can talk more about--the terms are just colloquial now. The people on the
streets in New York will talk about how 'hysterical' they are, how 'repressed':
everyday people. They don't say that about (laughs) ideology critique,
they don't talk about political economy in the street. There's a funny
way in which the language pervades everyday thought. But the real question
that interests me is what counts? And I'd like to hear you guys talk about
it--what counts as structure in art now? What counts as a valid model theoretically,
methodologically? I think the modern masters are in full flight: Marx,
Freud, Nietzche. The returns to these figures in the 60s, that structured
my generation and the generation before and after: all these things are
in real crisis now. It's hard to know what way of thinking has much validity.
PS: I think you use the word
"toolbox" of critical thought--a kind of bricollage: you are inventing models,
not willy-nilly, but from different models that are already in circulation.
HF: There are two problems,
or, there are two versions. One is the theory of pastiche, which we all
know and love and hate (hate mostly). The other is this model of bricollage.
PS: One might take some of
Marx and think that's still valid now, and other bits aren't. And you might
take bits of Freud--and I don't mean certain bits that are fashionable.
They might seem to explain something--but not the whole edifice.
HF: I wonder if we can still
do it in these ways. The people who really want to hold on to these characters
do so in a very funny way. Marx is turned back into a philosopher or Freud
is turned into an art critic. The clinical dimension or political dimensions
are dropped out. So maybe there is a need to not worry so much about master
models. Invent more and bricollage less.
PS: That's a very difficult
task though because we're trapped in a way by the weight of these models.
BC: It's what they engaged
in themselves though. You used the phrase 'constellations' in a way that
reminded me of Walter Benjamin.
HF: Yeah, he did invent out
of other pieces, some wacky pieces. He had this real soft spot for the
marking of evolution--characteristics that our parents somehow developed
in the environment--wacky stuff. It's a time when you can, or should speculate
theoretically, because it's not clear that given models work. I think that's
true of our experience. What do you all think about this idea of a 'post-medium
age'--it's a question of what you do in it?
BC: Could you try to clarify
what you mean by post-medium: are you saying that certain mediums don't
have the same shock value?
HF: This is my take, and
again my take is very situational. After the war there was an insistence
on a very restrictive idea of modernism that was mapped onto mediums, disciplines
of mediums. This aesthetic field not only took parts of modernism, but
it stood for modernism. It was a very delimited field. Precisely because
it was so delimited, one could work against that. There were transgressions
that happened. When the transgressions went flat one could also do deconstructions.
Every transgression re-inscribes limits too: to be John Cage or Robert
Rauchenberg or Fontana or whatever; but there's a way in which those mediums
are preserved in cancellation--preservation through negation. So that they
needed to be deconstructed. That was a project of serious work in the 60s
and 70s. But now it seems that the field has become so entropic, the work
is so ad hoc. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing--far from medium
specific, work is debate specific or discourse specific or even just context
Leigh French: Going back
to your talk and The Return of the Real and the artist as ethnographer.
Again it comes down to the individual confessional--the artist is ethnographically
plotting their own existence. Maybe more specifically in the UK more than
in the States: an artist comes in to whatever kind of community and represents
it in some way. Yet on the other hand you have (in the UK) within a certain
young British art scene, very much the confessional of the individual,
it's almost a kind of ethnographic mapping of the individual.
HF: This is why there is
this desire for structure that would not be so idiosyncratically personal.
I think you're right, there is this funny way in which the confessional
or the traumatic, or the ethnographic or the contextual come together,
because the desire to go out into the community, into other sites not identified
as art spaces is a kind of way to get out of personal limits, identity
or style. Because often these projects are very provisional, artists are
parachuted in, there's no connection with the community. It's more a self-portrait
in disguise at the site.
LF: The thing you also talk
about in the book is the pressures on museums to go out and develop and
attract new audiences--which is very much a pressure in the UK, in Scotland.
HF: How is it worked, what
are the manifestations of it? In the States it means--and this is not all
bad by any means--it means that education departments become very primary
in museums. We've all come to see international shows where the curators
really become the stars. International curators are hired to mediate among
artists that are parachuted into a place. That's like the grand version
of the problem. In the States it's about a sense of the demand for relevance.
I assume here, there's also a tradition of Socialist paternalism, where
there's a sense that there are cultures that need to be represented: that's
part of the multi-culturalist's paternalism. Is that part of the mix, how
does it work out?
BC: In Glasgow it has taken
on completely lunatic proportions. And I mean lunatic. The arts in Glasgow:
'culture', this word has become used to mesh with economic redevelopment,
in the sense that you make the city a tourist venue.
HF: That's what those site
specific shows are, the national ones, they're really tourist trips.
BC: A classic one would be
when there was a meeting of heads of the EC in Edinburgh. They sealed off
the streets, moved everyone away. Basically, as they drove down to where
they were meeting it was all lined with artworks, mostly to do with light--all
sponsored by things like arms industries--specifically for the people just
to look out of their car windows and see an artwork: that's it. It had
no other relevance to anything other than that. Now that's been writ large
upon Glasgow as a whole.
HF: In terms of the redevelopment
of Glasgow over several years?
BC: Which has plummeted to
the depths--the whole thing has collapsed, but it still carries on.
HF: Why has it collapsed--the
BC: Well, when they had the
Year of Culture in 1990 there was massive fraud. You're talking about a
very 'corrupt' town council that's suddenly given all this money--and they
get these massively inflated ideas. It's just gone berserk, and they keep
on doing it.
HF: But there must be positive
aspects, progressive ones, no?
PS: Perhaps because culture
when it is packaged in such a way, the artwork cease to be able to be read
in the way the producers might want them to be.
BC: I'm talking about a wider
scale, rather than just the artwork, I'm talking about the actual community,
the people of the city. In Scotland and in Glasgow you have a notion that
our culture is not valid--it's a very colonialised country. Culture 'has'
to be imported. My voice 'isn't' a 'proper' voice, my accent 'isn't' a
'proper' accent--it's as bad as that. So there's no notion of a nascent
or intrinsic culture in their equation at all: yet we have a 'renascent'
project in the city. They were actually trying to ban books. There's a
book called No Mean City it's about Glasgow in the past, the 'violence'
and so on. They tried to ban that, it was published in the 40s or something,
that's just one example. A faction of the artists took no part in the 1990
'celebrations' and they were castigated for even daring to criticise it;
yet they are the artists. All it was was just massive cultural administration,
all the money is in consultancy, administration and spectacular events
that mean nothing. OK some people get money but that's it.
PS: This reminds me of that
old Situationist slogan where they describe art as the commodity which
sells all the other ones--everything else.
BC: "To make the city a showroom",
they actually talk like this. "To make the city into a supermarket" that's
their avowed ambition.
HF: But is it? There must
be an edge there. If you feel in a bizarre way that you're in a post-colonial
BC: Not so much of the post
HF: Well I wonder about the
post in post-colonialism. But that must give an edge to a project for artists
that are so inclined.
BC: Well there's still some
sort of 'underground' feeling in Glasgow--because the culture is literally
HF: Is there not enough difference,
or is the difference so eradicated that you cannot use it as a way to generate
BC: The main line that they
are trying to do is to make art a de-politicised zone.
BC: Funding bodies: the gatekeepers.
PS: Where I live, in Newcastle,
it's just come to the end recently of The Year of the Visual Arts, which
is a big promotion of art in the North of England and that was basically,
again, a spectacle. You get the tourists in, the local people who don't
normally go to art events. You get them in and you give them some art.
It's a very patronising thing. Then the money stops and the people who've
benefited are not curators really but administrators. It sounds like a
gripe, but the point is culture is controlled.
HF: Yeah, it's so tricky.
I mean that sounds bad. I still want to get back to this sense of an edge
that you might have in colonial relation to say, London. In the States
it's so different. Your problem--you've got the state, the bureaucracy of
culture, there is this administrative level. In the States we often long
for 'the state'. There is private money but it's very fickle, and contemporary
art is now associated with pornography as much as anything. So even it
is pulled away. As a result we have these brand new museums in major cities:
in Boston, Atlanta or LA. But you feel like you're in the mansion of a
private family without an invitation. There's no sense of a public culture.
LF: I think this is something
that Bordieu talks about: the difference between what actually exists and
what is actually presented as disinterestedness. The fact is that it does
go on, that it is a family, that it is constructed on similar terms. Except
it's also presented in terms of disinterestedness. So the paternal funder
is also the cultural banker--but present themselves in a very specific way,
while still controlling both production and dissemination.
HF: Right. It's almost total
in the States, whereas before there used to be the residue of the idea
that the museum was part of a public sphere and that a curator, say, was
also, however feebly a (laughs) guardian of public culture. No such thing
PS: Hasn't that function
been taken over by the media, the culture is unified by the media.
HF: Sure, you don't go to
the sites of the residual public sphere to be socialised. But my point
is how different it is. I mean you resent the presence of the state--without
putting too fine a definition of it--and we long for it as some point of
intervention in this otherwise private party.
PS: Moving on from that,
but connected with it, talking about the world of curating. I can't think
of any examples off the cuff, but it seems that a lot of curators put together
a show, and then they find the artists to prove the point that they're
trying to make in the show. It sounds like the curators have become the
artists--the makers of meaning. And perhaps it was like that for a long
HF: That's a specific development
within art too. Many artists have taken on a curatorial role as well.
BC: On the rise of the artist
professional: there's an interesting article in After Image [Jan 93 'The
Alternative Arts Sector and the Imaginary Public, Grant Kester] about the
history and development, the political drives of all this. They'll go for
an electoral base: so maybe they'll fund the arts because they're democrats
and they want to go for the working class; the Republicans aren't bothered
with that so they're quite happy with art remaining as corporate entertainment.
HF: But for me it has also
to do with this anthropological model of post-modernism say.
LF: You could go back to
the Second World War--the Nazi's say, with the setting up of the anti-art
exhibition. It's exactly the same--an anthropological exercise--to do that.
The thematicised show is not new. The idea of mapping an anthropology onto
that work is not new.
BC: Look at Barr in The Museum
of Modern Art with his little graph of modernism--a Darwinian tree.
HF: That's not exactly what
I meant (laughs).
PS: Who makes meanings in
culture? Is it the curators, is it the artists? You were talking about
the idea of an avant-garde. Is that a constructed avant-garde by the market?
Is there scope for an avant-garde? The art market needs new commodities
doesn't it? We need an avant-garde in that sense.
HF: No, well, I think it's
too quick to dismiss or reduce problems to the 'commodity', the 'market',
'global capitalism'. Obviously these things are there and they structure
our lives. I think the model of recuperation is too easy. Work can get
out, even within a horrific festival of the arts in a city: it doesn't
damn the whole thing necessarily. If you begin in a defeatist way you get
BC: Our description of it
is to promote resistance to it really. You're saying there must be some
acceptance of all this. Yes, there's a human level which is beyond it...
HF: When I say I want to
hold on to this idea of an avant-garde, I do so with real reservations
of course. But I also think it is an idea--there are all kinds of myths
associated with the avant-garde, as we know, and they're critiqued well
at this point. The idea of the avant-garde stands for articulation of the
aesthetic and the political that should not be given up. It's too easy
to give up to other people. You know who wants us to give it up: the Right
wants us to go away, it's not the Left.
PS: That seems to go against
the idea of a political avant-garde art practice; would be counter to that
plural culture we seem to be in now: that kind of 'anything goes' art world,
which you've written about in Recodings, that it's a meaningless set of
HF: Yeah, that's why I think
there is an urgency around this question of what counts as structure in
art, what counts as an edge in cultural practice. If you go back to your
question: "who or what makes the meaning happen?" It's a hugely complicated
deal. But if we do not have enough in common in the description of the
major problem, then we're all fucked basically. There is a way in which
this diffusion, this dispersion of different projects is terrific. There
is a way in which work almost has to be ad hoc, because it is debate specific,
site specific. And there's also a way in which that makes it very difficult
to begin to have a sense of where anything is. I know that as a critic--and
I wonder about how you feel about this--but my experience is that I go from
studio to studio or show to show and I have to scramble for the terms,
the languages. I do feel like an anthropologist. It is in part, because
we feel that we work in an expanded zone area called culture.
PS: It's like that Wittgenstein
thing of private languages, by definition not common and no coherent set
HF: Yeah, on the one hand
yes, on the other hand there are all these connections: we are driven towards
the same questions: what is the status of the body, what counts as an image,
why this imperative to work in a communitarian way? The answers are difficult
and the institutional frames are different, but they come up in Glasgow,
New York, Copenhagen.
LF: One of the things I'm
interested in, and haven't thought through, but needs mapping in some way
is the position where 'once upon a time the personal was political' and
a development from that, to the aspect of the personal as promotion. Also
we have the development of political correctness (however vague a term,
however misused). How from not being able to talk about anything other
than personal experience, you've got from one stage where you cannot talk
for anybody else: from 'this is my opinion', through to something which
is a lot more defensive. I don't know where that actually leaves those
debates around the body. Maybe we need to step back and explore what's
HF: This is one thing I want
to know from you. There was an enormous interest in the 60s around precisely
these questions. I think if you could trace what you want to trace, everybody
would want to know, because that is crucial. To be glib about it, I think
that where the model used to be: 'the personal is political', now the model
would be: 'the political is the personal'. This assumption is made, it's
reversed, I mean literally turned around its value. One point in between
that 30 year trajectory--this is how I'd begin to map the field that you
want to trace--is that there is a moment when this idea of a constructed
subject came into play, which in a way displays that first moment of its
insistence on bodies: on an essential femininity (God knows an essential
masculinity was not the point). But when this idea of the constructed subject
came in, we began to think about how we were constructed symbolically,
socially, in a way that wasn't so physical. But, at a certain point this
idea of the constructed subject, however aesthetically important and politically
incisive, at a certain point it became a consumerist idea. This idea of
the performative too--which is related to the constructed--that we can change
our gender or whatever as if it were a costume. You know there's a certain
way in which that was disruptive and it has become absolutely consumerist--you
just get the right look. That's one reason why I think the art world and
the fashion world have come together mad today. They both believe in a
certain idea of performitivity that is fundamentally consumerist (laughs).
And I think that the one reason why artists have begun to return to the
kind of brute matter of the body--if there is such a thing as brute matter--is
to look for things that are not simply constructed, that are not simply
PS: So there's a notion of
the authentic again, isn't there?
HF: Yeah, well, I think these
terms come back with a whole other meaning. You're right, there is this
sense of authenticity, experience. You know we all hate it because we were
told by the French to hate it, that it was gone: the 'lived' is no more,
the 'experiential' is no more. It's back in an absentee way, this is what
I meant by the authority of the traumatic. You have this absolute authority
but you're not really there as an 'I' to have it. All these terms have
come back, and aesthetic terms too like specificity, autonomy, but what
they mean is up for grabs.
PS: But they've got to come
back in an informed way, haven't they, as opposed to a cliché?
HF: Oh yeah. If they just
come back in the old form it's a reactionary return. That's one thing my
book is at pains to at least sketch, that all these different kinds of
returns that are at play: which ones are really inventive and which ones
are just reactive, just calls to order.
BC: Just to pick up the threads
here. We were still talking about notions of the avant-garde. I don't know
what you think are the main texts, there's surprisingly few, but take Renato
Poggioli: he talks partly about reconnaissance, another military metaphor--troops
who identify the position of the enemy. That has a lot of meaning as regards
art. To pick up on Leigh's point: people are saying, 'well society at large,
it's us who make it', it's an inner voyage if you like, rather than a political
avant-garde. Now what is being brought back, who is the enemy, who is it
being brought back to, how is the enemy being spotted--how are we a vanguard?
Do we all just go along to another show and come back a better person?
Is art a priesthood after all?
PS: Who makes the avant-garde?
An avant-garde is only an avant-garde if it is a leading group that others
HF: I think there's an avant-garde
of resistance--this is one thing that I wanted to argue a long time ago
in Recodings . Its position need not always be research and development.
It can also be resistant, but I'm not sure if I would insist on it in the
same way. I think it's good to be sceptical of this idea of the avant-garde.
I'm not paranoid. Everything is a conspiracy when it seems like institutions--however
you want to name them--tell us what to do and what to think. My stance is
that the avant-garde has returned, as I say in the book, from the future
under the pressure of contemporary practice. To be honest it's not that
I thought surrealism, for example, was intrinsically of wild interest.
I felt compelled by recent work to think about it because it was there
that a certain problematic of sexuality, difference, a certain relation
to politics, theory--that were all concerns of the present--drove me back
to think about surrealism: because the present made it important. I think
artists that feel paranoid or conspiratorial do not see how they drive
the big press. There may be some smart critics out there, smart curators,
even one or two intelligent directors but their press--I think the agenda
comes from somewhere else, mostly from below. I mean that may sound sappy
BC: There's a monstrous form
of popularism in Glasgow being used...
HF: That's a different force,
the pressure of artists is only one of many--and it might not be the most
important at any given moment. The popularist pressure.
BC: Well it's just used.
The big institutions will put on a very liberal façade--they wouldn't
put on a far-right exhibition, maybe really they should, if they're so
liberal then they should represent that as some kind of notion of freedom.
There is I suppose a different notion of freedom in America: you can do
what you want if you're prepared for the consequences. Anyway, there's
this notion of Liberalism put forward in a modern contemporary art gallery,
but the higher up you go, if you look at the people on their boards, they
become more and more right-wing. So they have no fear about this at all:
they actually promote it, they're not threatened by it.
HF: Well look, I think avant-garde
culture historically needed a fairly confident bourgeoisie--not just to
shock--but there was a way in which the bourgeoisie wanted to be tested
too, wanted to see its values worked out another way.
BC: As Gombrich said they
wanted a 'crunchy diet'.
HF: (Laughs) I think, you
know, the classical idea of the avant-garde that we have now, of these
extraordinary movements in Paris, they required a bourgeoisie that was
informed enough to press them--the artists. I think there was a way in which
a version of this relation is all that's needed. That's what I don't see.
It doesn't come from the States, it doesn't come from a few rich people.
I think there is enormous withdrawal from contemporary culture, just in
general, for all kinds of reasons in the States. So those old conditions
of avant-garde culture have to be replaced by other ones. Whatever the
other conditions are they're never particularly happy--there's too much
state; not enough; too much private interest; not enough. These are all
in there by default. By default of a self-critical bourgeoisie.
PS: Presumably we're talking
about a notion of the avant-garde. Something that one wants to bring with
this notion is the idea of political change. Not simply a new set of artists
who happen to be the ones who get discussed in all the articles for a while.
You want something that's more 'radical' for want of a better word.
HF: Yeah. The avant-garde,
again, is this term that in the past articulated the artistic and the political.
I don't think that necessarily you go seek out the political in this neighbourhood
or that province. I don't think it's ready-made in any community. I think
sometimes it happens in form. I'm modernist enough to believe that you
can still be political within the materiality of your own work.
PS: Well in a sense it has
to be in terms of art practice, that's what it must be surely. Otherwise
it's just politics layered on.
HF: Yeah, like it's illustrational.
There's a lot of problems: there's theory illustration, there's political
expressionism. There's lots of problematic formulations it seems to me
right now. Maybe the pressure to form all these things together in work
that is also innovative in its own terms is too much to ask.
BC: The grand unification
theory of the avant-garde.
HF: I don't think that's
a grand theory--it can't be guessed beforehand, I think it happens.
PS: But that's a very different
position from a modernist position of De Stijil or some sort of group like
that, where they're trying to make the future happen in a certain way.
HF: No, that's beyond us,
BC: You're talking about
the rediscovery of past artworks. I think there's an industry about destroying
people's reputations, but even just re-readings. One is constantly surprised
though by the facts. I remember finding out that Jackson Pollock's tutor
was Thomas Hart Benton. Early on you'll see Pollock making these big floats
for political demonstrations with stereotypical capitalist effigies. Then
again you have this thing that when the state did intervene in the arts
in America with the WPA, that gave rise to this massive grouping which
was then again taken up by the state through the Congress for Cultural
Freedom and all that: it was done twice. Is that what you long for?
HF: (Laughs) Not exactly.
I don't see the early work of Pollock as that divorced from the later work.
For me there's not a huge divide between those moments in Pollock. There
is a moment where the political, the aesthetic and the institutional come
together in the work. It's obviously canonical, classical now, but there's
a way in which Pollock really knew where painting was at that moment. He
saw that innovation in form could also be political in the sense that there
was still enough of a structure to old ideas of painting that if they were
messed with, that would have political ramifications. I think it did, liberating
ones at least. That's an example, obviously a very privileged one, but
I don't think it's unique and I don't think it will never come again.
BC: It's fundamentally presented
as some kind of aesthetic leap, as if it's some sort of scientific breakthrough.
If you look at his work, OK he does break, but he's also coming back to
something, it's still drawing.
HF: But not at that time.
Smithson is another example of a person who 'leapt' in this league, gathered
up all these different forces in ways that could not be expected. Those
are two heroic examples, I think you could find humble ones too.
LF: The thing about photography
and the use of attempts at justification through the use of a painterly
language: Pollock talking about drawing or anything else can be as much
about a sense of justification--in the same way that photography went through,
and still is.
BC: But it's also very, very
hyped. That film he made, the Time magazine article. And it's the same
with Duchamp and the urinal: who took the photograph?--Stieglitz. Who's
show was it?--Stieglitz's, he put up the money. Duchamp even wrote the 'scandalous'
article. What did he set up afterwards? The Société Anonyme--taking
all that money from little old ladies and ambassador's wives (laughter).
I'm not condemning it, don't get me wrong, I'm drooling with jealousy.
But there has to be these readings too.
HF: (Laughs) Oh sure.
BC: Lets not get too romantic
HF: Oh I'm not romantic about
it at all. That's what I meant about my longing for a proper bourgeoisie.
It may sound absolutely perverse but...
PS: It's like Hegel's master
slave dialectic, you need a bogeyman to have an avant-garde.
BC: Well look at those Yves
Klein photographs, the ones with the naked women and that extraordinary
HF: Yeah, there was a great
moment when Benjamin Buchloch, in October, a long time ago, reproduced
the image of Klein's audience with Malevitch and Lissitzky and students
headed to Moscow, and this very different sense of a practice collective
etc. His whole deal, Benjamin's, was a before and after: this is real collectivity
and this is spectacle. But there's a way in which this is true. That's
his story--of massive precipitous decline, you know. I think the other way
is to see other possibilities. I think it's important to be grim, as grim
as possible, but there's always possibilities.
PS: Because if there weren't
presumably culture really would be sewn up by the powers at be.
HF: Yeah and we can all go
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